The Sentry - Language, tone and structure

Language in The Sentry

Assonance and onomatopoeia

In The Sentry Owen concentrates on making us share the trauma of the trenches through his use of sound. Throughout the poem there is a trail of assonating words employing the dull, short ‘uh’ sound, such as ‘guttering’ l.4, ‘slush’ l.5, ‘buffeting’ and ‘snuffing’ l.13, ‘muck’ l.15, ‘mud’ and ‘ruck’ l.17, with their close neighbours, ‘murk’ l.7, ‘curse’ l.9 and ‘herded’ l.11. This sound is reiterated by the high proportion of onomatopoeic words such as ‘burst’ l.3, ‘thud! flump! thud!’ and ‘thumping’ l.13, ‘crumps / Pummelled’ l.34-5 - all of these convey the muffled sounds of explosions and falling in the confined space underground.

There is little security offered from the wilder noises above ground – the ‘blast / Of whizz-bangs’ l.11-12, which ‘hammered’ l.3 through the ‘shrieking’ l.27 air. The whizz bang was the onomatopoeic name the soldiers gave to most German shells. The horror lay in the fact that it flew (whizzed) faster than the speed of sound and so the bang to warn men to shield themselves was delayed. The effect of its impact is transmuted into the crashing fall of the sentry’s body and the noises of human suffering: ‘whined’ l.18, ‘sobbed’ l.23, ‘spewed’ l.28, ‘moans’ l.32 and ‘wild chattering’ l.33. The aural assault that engulfs Owen and his men is summed up the alliterative phrase, ‘dense din’ l.36.


In The Sentry Owen chooses words to reflect the horror of the dug-out and the experience he and his men share. For Owen, who had a life-long dislike of confined spaces, it is ‘hell’ l.2. His sense of claustrophobia is conveyed by the tide of ‘slime’ l.4 ‘rising hour by hour’ which, already ‘waist high’ l.5, ‘Choked up’ l.6 the only escape route and later deluged Owen. The alliteration of ‘slime’ and ‘slush’ as well as the repeated ‘ruck on ruck’ l.17 of ‘muck’ l.15 (associated with faeces) builds up the sense of Owen being virtually submerged by the wet clay which almost claims the lives of two others l.18,29. It leaves him ‘floundering about’ l.25 without dignity or even purpose, like the gassed, ‘drowning’ victim of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The terrible stench of the dug-out is conveyed by ‘murk’, ‘stank old’ and ‘sour’ l.7, the ‘curse’ of previous lives cramped in terrifying conditions like animals (‘den’) l.9. Owen subtly alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which villainous Lady Macbeth declares ‘hell is murky’. The smell of hell is compounded by the cordite ‘fumes’ of explosives, one of the reminders that the instruments of death (rifles, ‘old Boche bombs’ l.17) are all around.

In the midst of this hellish vision, the prosaic machinery of war grinds on, suggested in words such as ‘sentry’ l.16, ‘posting’, ‘duty’ and ‘scout’ l.24, ‘stretcher’ l.26 and ‘other posts’ l.27.

Speech and indirect speech

Part of the humanity and reality of The Sentry lies in the way in which Owen uses both direct and indirect speech to write about his interaction with the men. Owen gives us the terrified, child-like cry of the sentry: ‘O sir, my eyes -- I'm blind -- I'm blind, I’m blind!’ l.19 as the realisation of his situation hits him. Owen is suddenly a father-figure ‘Coaxing’ l.20 an infant who despairingly sobs ‘I can’t’ l.23. Owen’s reply is intended to soothe the vulnerable sentry, the distance of calm authority created by the use of reported speech:

      if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he'd get all right.

The busy-ness of war makes Owen retreat even further from the piteous position of the victim as he reports himself ‘posting Next for duty and sending a scout’ l.25, the present continuous verbs indicating the wider demands of battle.

As if to overcome the gulf widening between the active and the injured, and reassert his maturity, rather than dependence, the sentry insists in direct speech again: ‘I see your lights’ l.37. That there were in fact no lights to be seen makes this a literal ‘cry in the dark’ and emphasises his vulnerability even more, evoking the reader’s pity.


Owen gives us his own perspective in The Sentry. We hear his tone of fear at the time in phrases such as ‘shell after frantic shell / Hammered’ l.2-3 and the horror of the situation in later nightmares: ‘Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids / Watch my dreams still;’ l.23-4. In the face of this sleeping ‘dread’ l.31, Owen has to somewhat distance himself from the gory details of the situation, allowing himself only selective memories (‘hark back for one word only’ l.31, just as, at the time, he had to get on with his duties as an officer rather than stay with the wounded sentry.

Investigating language and tone in The Sentry

  • In The Sentry we hear the actual words of the wounded man but only the indirect speech of the officer/Owen. What is the impact on you as the reader of hearing the sentry’s actual words in the poem?
  • Remind yourself of the poem The Dead-Beat which also contains dialogue and look again at The Letter. What do these and The Sentry have in common in terms of Owen’s use of language?
    • What have these three poems in common in terms of the tone Owen adopts?

Structure of The Sentry

The Sentry is an account of a single event, the effect on the man involved and on his comrades. Over 37 lines Owen writes a report of the setting, the events and the outcomes. In two stanzas of uneven length Owen portrays the drama of the whizz-bang attack, the man’s blinding and his false hope. The first stanza is divided after line 10 by an ellipse where Owen moves the reader from the scene he has established in the dug-out to the action and consequent horror of the attack. 



Unusually for Owen’s later poems, The Sentry is written almost entirely in full rhyme, almost as if he did not wish anything to get in the way of action of the story. ‘Knew’ l.1 rhymes with ‘through’ l.3 in a conventional manner and this pattern dominates. Some lines have internal rhyme, as when Owen adds to the intensity of bombardment in l.2 (‘hell .. shell .. shell’) and l.14 (‘thud! flump! .. thumping’). The only pararhyme is the dissonant connection between ‘spewed’ and ‘good’ l.28-9.

There are occasional rhyming couplets such as at the changing point in stanza one where the scene setting ends with: ‘The smell of men’ l.8 left ‘in the den’ l.9 and the action begins with ‘the blast’ l.11 which broke through ‘at last’ l.12. The poem ends with a final rhyming couplet: the ‘shout’ of the man with all its false hope of ‘I see your lights’ l.36 is countered by the grim reality of the fact that those lights had ‘long gone out’ l.37.


Owen chooses to use a regular iambic pentameter to narrate the events for much of The Sentry, so it is notable when he breaks it. The inverted feet of ‘Hammered’ l.3, ‘Buffeting’ l.13, ‘Pummelled’ l.35 and spondee of ‘Rain guttering’ l.4 evokes the intensity of the bombardment. The seven heavy beats of ‘And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping’ l.14 convey the deadweight of a falling body. The jolty nerves of the terrified sentry are communicated by the extra syllable and mixed metres of ‘And the wild / chattering / of his bro / ken teeth’ l.33. In line nine the additional syllables draw our attention to the length of time the dug-out has been occupied and to the effect of that long occupation.

Investigating structure and versification in The Sentry

  • The Sentry is unusual in that Owen generally uses a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm. How do you respond to this more predictable style of poetry?
    • How does it compare with other more irregular formats – select relevant poems for your comparison
    • How effective is this regularity in helping us move through the events of the poem?
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