Strange Meeting - Language, tone and structure

Language in Strange Meeting

Diction to set the scene

Owen’s choice of words in Strange Meeting varies according to the subject matter. At the start of the poem he creates a dream-like setting: ‘it seemed’ and ‘I escaped’ l.1. His use of adjectives creates the sense of place in which he sets the scene for the meeting. The way down is ‘profound’ yet ‘dull’ l.2, carved out of ‘granites’ l.3. Granite is a hard, igneous rock. In one of his letters home Owen wrote:

The men had to dig trenches in ground like granite.

The stillness of the language lulls the reader. The jolt of the probing (line 6) when ‘one sprang up’ l.6 is reminiscent of the change in action in Dulce et Decorum Est when the ‘fatigue’ of troops ill prepares them for the ‘gas’. Here the action works through a string of human gestures: ‘sprang up, and stared’, showed ‘recognition’, ‘lifted .. hands’ and smiled l.6-9. The eyes of the man however are ‘piteous’ - not pitiful but rather asking to be pitied.

The language of the monologue

Owen creates a monologue, with the ‘other’ soldier’s words taking over the poem. The language changes to be no longer descriptive but abstract and philosophical. Owen uses abstract nouns which carry deep meanings:

  • ‘hope’ (l.16)
  • ‘beauty’ (l.18)
  • ‘the truth’ (l.24)
  • ‘The pity of war’ (l. 25)
  • ‘discontent’ (l. 27)
  • ‘Courage’ ( l.30)
  • ‘mystery’ ( l.30)
  • ‘Wisdom’ (l.31)
  • ‘mastery’ ( l.31).

These concepts are interwoven with words which carry the emotions of the speaker such as ‘hopelessness’ l.16 and ‘weeping’ l.23, creating a dense texture of meaning.

Monosyllabic language

In the final section of the narrative the language again undergoes change. The plain words:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend l.40

have a strong emotional impact. They are straightforward and almost monosyllabic compared with the complexity of the previous language. The verbs ‘knew’ and ‘frowned’ l.41, ‘jabbed’ and ‘killed’ l.42 move the poem on to its close with the familiar vocabulary of war we recognise from many of Owen’s other poems.

The last lines

In reaction to the jabbing and killing the soldier had ‘parried’ l.43 - a verb meaning ‘to ward off a blow’. Owen states that the man was unable to defend himself. His hands were ‘cold’, an unequivocal word indicating basic physical suffering. That the man’s hands were also ‘loath’ l.43 adds a more complex idea. ’Loath’ suggests a reluctance to act. Owen is saying that the man was unwilling, as well as unable, to defend himself. 

The final line of Strange Meeting: ‘Let us sleep now...’ is moving in its simplicity. It is followed by ellipses which may be interpreted in several ways:

  • Owen intended to continue writing so this is only a fragment of a poem
  • Owen is indicating that sleep will end in death
  • Owen is suggesting that death is a sleep
  • Owen is implying that the sleep with be unending, they will be at peace
  • Owen leaves us with a deliberately ambiguous ending.

Owen’s use of onomatopoeia

Throughout Strange Meeting Owen uses onomatopoeia to stress sounds or settings 

  • ‘no guns thumped’ or ‘made moan’ l.13 is a negation of sound, creating the sense of muffled silence
  • ‘Boil bloody’ l.27 demands a strong sensuous response to the heat and sight but also to the implied sound of boiling
  • In l. 29 the brittle repeated ‘k’ of ‘break ranks’ and ‘trek from progress’ replicates the noise of shattering
  • When ‘Blood has clogged’ l.33, the sound of the word ‘clogged’ allows us to experience the thick, sticky mess of blood
  • With the soft, repeated ‘w’ sound of ‘Sweet wells’ l.35, Owen allows us to imagine the taste of water and refreshes the ear
  • Through the use of the soft ‘c’ and prolonged double ‘s’ of ‘Cess of war’ l.38 Owen makes the sibilance hiss out the horror of the excrement which is war
  • ‘Jabbed’ l.42 is an evocative word which describes the sharp brutality of killing the enemy with a bayonet. 

The language of the King James Version of the Bible 

The cadences of this poem echo words and phrases, sentiments and verses from the King James Bible. In line 8 ‘Lifting up his hands as if to bless’ Owen uses words almost identical to those of the gospel writer Luke who tells how Christ, after his death and resurrection, lifted up his hands to bless his disciples (Luke 24:50). This is followed closely in line ten by ‘we stood in Hell’. In the Christian creed Christ is described as descending into hell after his death and before his resurrection (see Liturgy Morning Prayer:Apostles' Creed). Owen would have spoken these words every Sunday of his formative years. 

Notice the references in Strange Meeting to preaching, the dead, flesh and the spirit. Owen is alluding to a passage from the Bible:

‘For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.’ KJB (1 Peter 4:6

The monologue spoken by the German soldier is a sermon or homily on the true purpose of poetry. The sufferings of the flesh are juxtaposed with the desire of the ‘strange friend’ to pour out his spirit to ease those pains. 

Other biblical echoes include ‘The undone years’ of line fifteen suggesting the text:

‘I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.’ ESVUK Joel 2:25.

God is promising here to make reparation for the destruction wrought by nature, his destructive army (and a metaphor for a human army).

More on Owen and biblical references...: Owen’s upbringing by a very pious mother meant he had a very intimate knowledge of the Bible. His own strongly held beliefs as a child and young man would have been based on a regular reading and study of this book. Even after he gave up formal religion it would have been almost impossible for Owen to forget the textures, ideas and poetry of the King James Bible. They would be part of him.     

Other allusions

Strange Meeting is a poem rich in literary allusions, reflecting Owen’s own wide reading.

  • In Dante’s Inferno Dante, like Owen, has a meeting with the dead in Hell
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab provides the blood clogged chariot-wheels of line thirty four:
    Where hosts stain his blood blushed chariot-wheels
  • Owen’s ‘truths that lie too deep for taint’ l.36 are an echo of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality in Early Childhood:
    To me the meanest flower that blow can give
    Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
  • Oscar Wilde’s key theme in The Ballad of Reading Gaol becomes Owen’s:
    Yet each man kills the thing he loves


The tone of Strange Meeting is different for each speaker.

Owen begins in a dreamlike, distant tone. There is an almost epic feel to the opening which becomes eerie as the realisation of hell dawns. The sombre tone used to describe the sleepers contrasts with the sense of the supernatural created by the ‘dead smile’ and the ‘sullen hall’ of Hell.

The German soldier’s words are initially delivered in a tone of despair. ‘The hopelessness’ of line 16 is replaced by the mood of regret of line 22:

For by my glee might many men have laughed

The mood again changes with line thirty. Here the speaker tells of what he would have done to cleanse the word. The tone is more positive. 

The final shift is from the reflective, meditative tone of the main monologue to the almost gentle, understated feel of the denouement in line 40. Owen uses the phrase ‘my friend’ in Dulce et Decorum Est in an angry, ironic way. Here in Strange Meeting he uses it paradoxically: the ‘enemy’ is the ‘friend’. This final section brings a change of tone with nothing high-flown but plain, mostly monosyllabic language, the simplicity of fulfilment. Paradoxically again, illumination is given in the dark of the tunnel.

Even the brutality of the killing in line forty two does not break this mood and the final invitation to sleep leaves us and the protagonistsat peace.

Investigating language and tone in Strange Meeting

  • Dylan Thomas described Owen as ‘a poet for all time, all places, and all wars. There is only one war, that of men against men.’ From your reading of Strange Meeting how far do you feel Strange Meeting goes to supporting Thomas’ view?

Structure of Strange Meeting

The poem moves through four stages (represented by separate stanzas in some editions of the poem) which each deal with different aspects of the strange meeting: Owen’s descent into hell is followed by a description of hell. He then meets his ‘strange friend’ and hears his monologue on truth and poetry. Finally the dead soldier relates his killing by Owen, then invites him to sleep. 


Pararhymed couplets

The pararhyme scheme of Strange Meeting has a twofold effect on the reader

  • It emphasises the seriousness of what is being said without the distraction of perfect rhymes which can sometimes trivialise the verse by their predictability
  • The pararhymes jolt us with their discords. They sound ‘wrong’ because we expect the soothing regularity of true rhymes, and when these are absent we hear a tension in the poetry.

In certain couplets the first pararhyme prepares us for the second, such as ‘groined’ and ‘groaned’ in lines three and four. The first is an unusual, unexpected word but has an onomatopoeic quality to it. It sounds very like ‘groaned’. Owen achieves a similar effect with the neutral ‘hall’ anticipating the sinister ‘hell’ in lines nine and ten.

‘Moan’ and ‘mourn’ which end lines fourteen and fifteen have not only a similar auditory quality but also qualify each other. The ‘moan’ is the sound of mourning. The alliteration as in ‘groined’ and ‘groaned’ enhances the onomatopoeia. Notice that, of the twenty two couplets, fourteen have alliterative pararhymes.

Lines nineteen to twenty one have the shared ‘r’ sound of ‘hair’, ‘hour’ and ‘here’ creating a ‘triplet’. ‘Hair’ and ‘here’ match, as do the other pararhymes with the first and last sounds repeating, but the aspirate aitch does not match in ‘hour’ which is a softer, more drawn out sound suggesting the running of time, almost like a sigh. The short, hard-ended ‘hair’ and ‘here’ suggest an immediacy, almost a sense of being ‘here and gone’, which reflects the fleeting beauty of the ‘braided hair’ line nineteen.

The last line

This final word from the strange friend stands alone. There is nothing with which it rhymes but the last word ‘now’, followed by the ellipsis, creates a sense of continuity.

Investigating structure and versification in Strange Meeting

  • Owen’s use of pararhyme makes Strange Meeting a very individual poem. Make a list of the pararhymes in the poem, using colours to identify the shared sounds.
    • Can you find examples of when the pararhymes Owen uses in Strange Meeting create a drop in pitch or dissonance?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.