The Letter - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in The Letter

Colloquial language

The whole of this poem is written in the voice of the ‘Tommy’, the name given to the British soldier at the front. Owen replicates the man’s dropped aitches: ‘ ’ere Bill’ for here Bill in line two and the ‘square ’eaded ’uns’ for square headed Huns etc. Interestingly, in line twenty, when the writer is hit, the ‘h’ is aspirated, ‘I’m hit’, conveying the impact of the bullet. However almost immediately afterwards as he asks for help with ‘take ’old.’ and ‘’Ere!’. The writer’s accent is also conveyed by ‘yer’ for ‘you’ l.10.

The easy familiarity between the men is communicated by the slurring of ‘lend’s’ l.2 and ‘spare’s’ l.8, shortened forms of ‘lend us’ and ‘spare us’, with the informal ‘us’ meaning the letter writer himself. Owen may subtly be showing the camaraderie of the men, the idea that the individual is part of the whole

The writer’s reference to his wife as ‘my old girl’ l.22 is a term of affection. In suggesting that his mother might ‘spare [her] half a sov.’ he is demonstrating care and concern - a ‘sov’ is short for a sovereign, a gold coin worth one pound, which was a great deal of money at the time.

Grammatical errors

Although the man can write, his lack of education shows in his non-standard usage of English. He uses ‘don’t’ for ‘doesn’t’, ‘them’ for ‘those’ and reports being ‘not bad fed’ l.6 rather than ‘not badly fed’. These phrases are all part of Owen’s attempt to keep the man’s language consistent. The letter writer’s brave attempt at ‘proper’ English, ‘as I told you of’ l.13 is itself a little pompous and clumsy – colloquially he might have put ‘as I said’; in formal language it would be expressed ‘as I mentioned before’. 

When, at the presumed end of his life, he says ‘Write my old girl’ l.22 (instead of ‘write to’), Owen is either maintaining the casual speech of the man or emphasising that in his agony he must say what he wants to in as few words as possible. 

Strong language

The adjective ‘ruddy’ l. 10 is a less offensive form of the word bloody. Strong language would have been common in usage among men under pressure at the Western front. In line fifteen, when a shell almost hits the camp, the man responds with the mild expletive ‘by crumbs’. When he receives a hit it is ‘Guh!’ a natural expiration of air as if winded and ‘Christ!’ Using God’s name as an oath and/or a prayer in this way reflects the degree of agony the man is suffering. Owen conveys the noise of the actual explosion onomatopoeically as ‘VRACH!’


Owen takes us through a wide range of emotions which are reflected in the tone of the poem, from optimism, through brutal reality, to despair, leaving us finally with the affection the man has for his comrades and wife.

Although the poem opens with a quite formal address to the soldier’s wife, this swiftly changes in the second line to a blunt conversation with a comrade which Owen places in brackets. The soldier is irritated that his pencil needs sharpening, which delays satisfying his desire to write home. In contrast to the tension between the men quarrelling over bread and cigarettes, the tone of the letter home is hopeful and determinedly upbeat:

I think the war will end this year l.4

This is probably in order to encourage the writer’s wife rather than because it reflects reality. There is a sad irony that the man tells a deliberate untruth, that the men are ‘not bad fed’, which Owen highlights by juxtaposing it with the writer’s desperation for ‘a bite of bread.’ l.8. Yet the soldier cannot know how wrong his assertions that ‘We’re out of harm’s way’ l.6 and ‘I'll soon be 'ome’ are about to prove.

Towards the end of the letter the soldier’s tone becomes caring: ‘Kiss Nell and Bert’, l.17 The last words he writes before the attack are, ‘When me and you –’ l.17. The tone is hopeful, even romantic. Then immediately the tone changes, to one of surprise, disbelief, panic and then horror as the man responds to the command to stand to, picks up his pack and takes the hit. The poem finishes on the tender note of the dying man’s last request and his affection for his comrade, ‘there’s a dear’ l.22.

Investigating language and tone in The Letter

  • Owen’s choice of words for the voice of the soldier is all important in this poem. Contrast the bracketed conversations spoken on the Western front with the words of the letter home.
    • How do these two different voices add to the power of the poem?
    • How does the colloquial language add to the pity of the poem?
  • Make a list of the terms of endearment the man uses in the letter
    • Make a list of the oaths, curses or name callings he uses.

Structure of The Letter

Owen shows us in one continuous stanza the contents of a letter home from a man to his wife. This is interspersed with dialogue between the man and his comrades in the rest camp. Almost every line of the poem begins with ‘I’ or ‘We’ or a name: ‘Mother’, ‘Jim’, ‘Christ’, making it a very personal account.


The Letter can be divided into a series of quatrains which themselves, for the most part, are made up of two rhyming couplets: aa bb. The exceptions are lines five to eight where Owen changes the rhyme scheme to a cd cd pattern and then in lines thirteen to sixteen where the pattern is gh hg. Because of the diversion of alternating discourses, the rhymes don’t seem strained apart from when the man calls his fellow soldier a ‘cow’ (to rhyme with ‘now’), a term of abuse usually attributed to females rather than males.


Most of The Letter is written in tetrameter, but this is lengthened in some lines to pentameter conveying the natural flow of feeling, rather than the slightly stilted requirements of the letter. However, in l.15 the consuming impact of the explosion is conveyed by a single foot of one heavy beat – ‘VRACH!’ - which swallows any anticipated extra syllable.

Investigating structure and versification in The Letter

  • Owen’s use of rhyme and rhythm, his versification, is unusual in this poem. Print off a copy of the poem here and use highlighter pens to show the rhyme schemes.
  • On your copy of The Letter identify which lines are short and which are long
    • Look at what you have identified and see if you can draw any conclusions as to why Owen chose to write in this way.
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