The Last Laugh - Language, tone and structure

Language in The Last Laugh

The diction which Owen chooses is blunt and to the purpose. The language used by each of the men in his dying breath reflects on each man’s emotional state. Owen creates a litany whereby, as the dying men call out, so the weapons of war respond.

The first line grabs our attention; it would have done more than that in 1918 when it would have been felt to be blasphemous to many people unless it was used as a prayer. Owen is making the point, both here and to his mother in the letter he sent to her with the poem, that prayer and cursing are akin on the field of battle when a man is in extremis.

The diction of the dying

  • ‘Oh! Jesus Christ!’ It is not clear whether the man’s sharp, expletive ‘Oh!’ is a prayer or a response to the agony of his injuries. This is followed by the name of God in a way that is half a prayer for help and half curse
  • ‘O Mother’. Owen uses the ‘O’ to show the longing the man has for his parents, unlike the more aggressive and agonised ‘Oh!’ of the first man. The repetition of the female parent helps to emphasise the boy’s vulnerability
  • ‘My love!’ follows a similar pattern to the other two in the form of a short sound prefacing the name, the possessive conveying intimacy.

The onomatopoeic language of the guns

Just as he creates a pattern in the language of the last words of the dying so Owen’s choice of onomatopoeic words for the sounds of the bombardment creates a pattern. Each man’s death causes a reaction:

  • At the first man’s death, the weapons ‘chirped’ l.3, ‘chuckled’ l.4 and ‘guffawed’ l.5, words that build in mirth and convey increasing superficiality
  • At the second man’s death the long ‘ejzh’ sound of ‘Leisurely gestured’ conveys the apathetic lack of compassion which becomes harsh ridicule with the hard consonants of ‘spat, and tittered’ l.10
  • Owen makes the mockery of the third man even more overt, with the hoot and groan l.14 of the shells and hiss l.15 of the gas, as if the man was a failed variety act being booed off stage.

There is unremitting awfulness about the whole of each of the scenes Owen creates.


The tone of the last laugh is bitterly cynical. Owen shows how the weapons of war show no respect for the human sacrifices in their sights, just ridicule them. The fact that each response is described in terms of a human voice makes the whole poem darker and bleaker. Of course it is ironic that we are accusing inanimate objects of being ‘inhuman’ but the poem’s title (which is an English idiom about being ultimately victorious despite initial appearances) speaks of an organising intelligence (i.e. national government) behind the operation of the armaments which does not care how many men’s lives are wasted.

Investigating language and tone in The Last Laugh

  • Owen wrote to his mother about this poem that it has ‘had rather a harrowing effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.’ What is particularly ‘harrowing’ about The Last Laugh?
    • What might Owen have meant by it is not ‘chastened’ in terms of the language he uses?
    • What do you suppose ‘baffled’ Owen’s ‘critical spirit’ in the poem?

Structure of The Last Laugh

The last laugh is one of the most straightforward of Owen’s poems in terms of structure. Each of the three five line stanzas has a repeating pattern, starting with the last words of the dying men and followed by the responses of the weapons which have killed them.



The pararhyming couplets which contain the dying words and the moment of death are drawn together by Owen’s choice of words:

The pararhymes of

  • ‘died’ / ‘indeed’ in stanza one are a shorthand for the whole poem
  • ‘Dad’ / ‘dead’ in the second verse contrast human love and relationships with the ultimate end
  • ‘mood’ / ‘mud’ shows how all feeling is lost in a pathetic end.

Owen abandons any attempt at rhymes in the responses of the armaments in the first two verses, although there is a clear pararhyme in the last verse where the bayonets ‘grinned’ and the shells ‘groaned’, which sums up the whole horrific scene. By juxtaposing ‘gas’ and ‘hissed’ in the final line Owen leaves us with the sickening consonance of the sibilant ‘s’.


Owen sets the scene for each death with the iambic pentameter of the opening couplets of each verse (if ‘lowered’ in l.12 is elided as ‘low’rd’). The rhythm adds some dignity to the great indignity of death before Owen counters this with the brutality of the weaponry. They rattle out their response in short bursts, a pattern is established with the repeated anapests of ‘And the X’ (l.5,8,10,13,15).

Investigating structure and versification in The Last Laugh

  • The formulaic nature used by Owen in each verse makes The Last Laugh an uncomplicated and accessible poem. How does the simplicity of the structure add to the power and the pity of the poem?
    • How does the predictability of the couplets and the unpredictability of the final three lines of each verse add to the terror and tension Owen creates?
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