The Last Laugh - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in The Last Laugh

In The Last Laugh Owen wants us to see the way in which the guns and gas, the shells and shrapnel have the last laugh at the death of the three men. Their deaths are described in a straightforward, factual style, although the fact that the third man’s face ‘kissed the mud’ is a parody of his ‘love languid mood’ l.11

The main thrust of the imagery in The Last Laugh is the personification of the inanimate ironmongery which kills. Each of the weapons is given its own personality. Owen has them all mocking the dead with their human voices and humours:

  • The bullets ‘chirped’ l.3 - a perky, bird-like sound reflecting their size and speedy flight
  • Machine guns ‘chuckle’ l.4, a fatter sound than the chirp, as if amused by the events
  • The big gun ‘guffawed’ l.5, an uncontrollable deep laughter (the long ‘aw’ sound conveying the greater girth of the gun) surging out of its mouth
  • The shrapnel cloud ‘gestures’ its contempt l.9, the dust ‘rising above’ mere death 
  • The splinters from the shrapnel ‘spat’ and ‘tittered’, a mean, fractured sound reflecting their indiscriminate targeting of everything in sight
  • The ‘long teeth’ of the shiny bayonet blades ‘grinned’ l.13, a cold smile of triumph before they deliver the death blow
  • Shells are a rabble, a gang who ‘hooted and groaned’ in an uncontrolled fashion l.14, careless of the magnitude of what is really going on
  • The ‘hissed’ of the gas l.15 delivers the final contempt of the villain (who might be expected to be hissed) for his victims.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in The Last Laugh.

  • The power of the poem lies in the personification of the armaments. Compare personification of the weapons in The Last Laugh with their personification in Anthem for Doomed Youth
  • Each of The Last Laugh, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought in to Action is equally sinister in its own way. Which poem do you personally find most horrific in terms of Owen’s representation of the weapons?

Themes in The Last Laugh

This is perhaps the simplest and most direct example of Owen’s self-confessed theme - war and the pity of war. It contains all the facets of the theme:

  • Horror: the horror of suffering and the horror at the causes of that suffering
  • Religious hope and doubt: the prayer or blasphemy of line1
  • The mechanics of war: in every reference to the laughing weapons of war
  • Man’s inhumanity to man: Owen creates the humanity of the dying through their last word, yet they are treated inhumanely by those who instruct the armaments
  • Nihilism and waste: Then smiled at nothing……..being dead l.7

Investigating themes in The Last Laugh

  • The Last Laugh may be said to be the most cynical and despairing of Owen’s poems. ‘The pity is the poetry.’ How far do you agree that this is true for The Last Laugh?
    • Do you feel that this may be the darkest of Owen’s poem? If so, explore the reasons for this being the case.
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