Wilfred Owen, selected poems Contents
- Wilfred Owen: Social and political background
- Wilfred Owen: Religious / philosophical context
- Wilfred Owen: Literary context
- Wilfred Owen: 1914
- Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth
- Wilfred Owen: At a Calvary near the Ancre
- Wilfred Owen: Disabled
- Wilfred Owen : Dulce et Decorum Est
- Wilfred Owen: Exposure
- Wilfred Owen: Futility
- Wilfred Owen: Greater Love
- Wilfred Owen: Hospital Barge
- Wilfred Owen: Insensibility
- Wilfred Owen: Inspection
- Wilfred Owen: Le Christianisme
- Wilfred Owen: Mental Cases
- Wilfred Owen: Miners
- Wilfred Owen: S.I.W
- Wilfred Owen: Soldier’s Dream
- Wilfred Owen: Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action
- Wilfred Owen: Spring Offensive
- Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting
- Wilfred Owen: The Dead-Beat
- Wilfred Owen: The Last Laugh
- Wilfred Owen: The Letter
- Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
- Wilfred Owen: The Send-Off
- Wilfred Owen: The Sentry
- Wilfred Owen: Wild with All Regrets
Wild with All Regrets - Language, tone and structure
Language in Wild with All Regrets
A body anatomised
In a letter to Siegfried Sassoon Owen says he has written a ‘photographic representation’ of a man dying of wounds. He pays close attention to the man’s injuries in the early lines of stanza one, then explores his meditation on how to prolong life by various means.
Despite the romance of the title, in this poem Owen writes of the most basic of human desires, to stay alive, in a plain and simple style. The initial string of body parts convey a man anatomising what does and doesn’t function in his body: ‘arms’ in l.1, ‘fingers’ l.2, ‘back’ l.3, ‘my lung’ l.16 (notice he mentions one only) and ‘legs’ l.17. At greater depth, the wounded serviceman explores the temporary transfer of his spirit to the body of his friend, when he refers to ‘body’ l.30, ‘chest’ l.33, ‘throat’ l.34, ‘lips ‘l.35 and ‘breathing’ l. 36. The grim reality is that soon the soldier’s ‘wound’ and ‘blood’ loss (l.37) will render this a necessity.
As if the catalogue of physical details wasn’t enough, Owen heaps this poem with negatives or words with negative connotations. The soldier’s arms are ‘brutes’ which ‘have mutinied’ l.1, whilst his fingers only ‘fidget’ alliteratively like ‘idle brats’ l.2. His hours are ‘damned’ by the presence of ‘Death’ l.3-4. Ironically, when younger the soldier did not value longevity, seeing it only as being ‘dead old’ l.7 (‘dead’ being used metaphorically rather than as slang for very). Now that view is ‘awful’ l.8. Even the future that might have been is tinged with what he realises are just ‘the arts of hurting’ l.10. The prayer for one spring more seems ‘too hard’ and ‘too long’ to be granted l.15.
The language of dying
Owen’s language in stanza two is preoccupied with dying. The man imagines his dead body being ‘lugged out’ l.19 from his ‘coffin of a bed’ l.20. As he meditates on being buried, he becomes aware of the ‘dirt’ to which he will return, the fact that his hands are already mere ‘dust’ l.24. (See Earth, clay, dust to grasp what Owen's audience would have understood by this concept.) There is no place for status and he would take any menial task in order to continue to live, irrespective of the dirt, grime or dust l.23 and l.24. He wouldn’t mind being ‘black as Town’ or a ‘muckman’ – better that than being the human waste that the muckman collects. By stanza three the language becomes more intimate: the man describes how his ‘heavy spirit’ chills l.34. The poem ends with the ‘sobs’ and ‘sighs’ of l.34 and l.35 and the inevitability of doing:
Officer or private soldier?
Owen uses diction in Wild with All Regrets which suggests a dying officer. His words are not in the colloquial language he employs when giving voice to a private soldier (the ‘me’ of l.17 is not a non-standard replacement of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ with the personal pronoun ‘me’ for example). The man talks about teaching his sons ‘hunting and shooting’ l.10, which are typically upper-class sports. However, he mentions making money so does not have inherited wealth. These references suggest that, like many officers in the last years of the war, he is a middle-class man who has been promoted to a rank originally earmarked for the gentry because of the high number of casualties.
Frustration and anger
In Wild with All Regrets Owen takes us through a range of emotions. It begins with the frustration and anger the soldier feels about his dying body and with Death’s relentless demands:
Because he is in the presence of another, much of the wounded man’s frustration is projected with humorous energy. His defeat as he returns the book to its lender: ‘it’s no use’ l.5, becomes grim humour in line six:
The irony lies in the truth that his life will indeed be short, but certainly not merry. The term ‘buck’ suggests sexual prowess – dark humour. He also realises the irony (conveyed by the exclamation mark) that his own upbringing, and the anticipated one of future children, was/would be principally about ‘the arts of hurting’ – i.e. harming life (as he has been harmed) rather than valuing and nurturing it.
Faced with losing life, the soldier speaks of it wistfully: in the spirit of Housman’s poem (see Synopsis and commentary > Literary allusions) he longs for the new growth of spring and the fresh air that would ‘grow me legs as quick as lilac shoots’ l.17. This is archaic syntax rather than ungrammatical English: the man is using a reflexive verb: the air will grow legs for me.
He even longs for the dirt that speaks of the messy reality of human living:
Throughout the poem the tone is informal, almost intimate. This becomes more overt as the soldier ruefully accepts his dependence on his relationship with his friend/listener to keep his memory and spirit alive. But he realises that, like all grief, the sobs for his lost life will be replaced by sighs which time will remove.
Investigating language and tone in Wild with All Regrets
- The dying man says that he would love to have been a ‘muck-man’, then asks why he must be ‘his load’. How does this image fit in with the imagery of dirt and dust and death in the poem?
- ‘All blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick.’ How far does this poem go towards justifying W.B. Yeats’ criticism of Owen’s poetry?
Structure of Wild with All Regrets
Structure and time
The poem is made up of four stanzas, each becoming shorter as the man approaches death. Owen progressively compresses the man’s thoughts and feelings reflecting the limitations of time as death draw near. The final, separate couplet conveys acceptance that the soldier can give up his fight to stay alive.
Owen experimented with pararhyme in this poem where it is used almost exclusively. Owen described this to Siegfried Sassoon as ‘a stunt’- something to surprise. Owen also experiments with rhyming vowel sounds and alliteration.
The effect of pararhyme is to challenge the reader’s anticipation of a comfortable rhyme by providing something less obvious and thus more thought-provoking. For example, in the opening couplet, Owen ends each line a short, sharp word: ‘brutes’ and ‘brats’. They belong together because they are negative descriptions of parts of the soldier’s body and share harsh consonants, but the change of vowel denotes the different weight of each limb and their relative power to frustrate their owner.
The regularity of Owen’s use of couplets is broken when the couplet is separated by the stanza break between verse one and two. ‘Shoots’ and ‘sheets’ echo each other but ‘shoots’ l.17 ends the brief hope expressed at the end of the opening stanza and ‘sheets’ l.18 takes us closer to the dying man and his physical environment.
Twice Owen chooses to use pararhymes across three lines instead of two. This has the effect of arresting our attention.
- Firstly in line 25 to line 27 Owen links settings for dust and dirt through ‘sun-shafts turn’ to ‘faces’ tan’ then ‘black as Town’. There is a movement from light to darkness that the speaker is happy to embrace if it means a tangible, rather than insubstantial, life.
- Owen next uses this technique at the very end of the poem, breaking the triplet between stanzas three and four. He highlights an inverted process; owing to his deathly ‘wound’ l.37 the soldier will be ‘weaned’ l.36 from his fleshly body to become ‘wind’ l.35, a metaphor for the spirit. Thus the poem is drawn to its conclusion.
A lonely load
There is one unrhymed line in Wild with All Regrets. In line 28 the protagonist asks the second question of the poem: ‘Must I be his load?’ Like the earlier questions addressed to God l.13-15, this also challenges the need for death. By allowing the vowel-heavy word ‘load’ to stand alone with its question mark, Owen creates a sense of desolation, echoing the solitariness of the dying man.
Adding a beat to the iambic pentameter
As with the pararhyming couplets in Wild with All Regrets Owen also chooses to break the regular pattern of the iambic pentameter in which the poem is mainly written. Four times in the poem Owen lengthens the line to draw our attention to a particular truth.
- The first time is in l.8-12 one when the dying soldier regrets being unable ‘to renew’ his life. The extra beat ironically underlines the ‘boyhood’ which won’t be relived in his sons and gives an extra, ironical emphasis to the vain ‘hitting’ l.9, ‘hurting’ l.10 and ‘making money’ l.11 of which death will deprive him
- In l.12 with its echo of Housman’s poem about fifty years being ‘little room’ to appreciate life and beauty, Owen also adds an additional beat physically manifesting the sense of ‘none too many’
- The additional syllable in lines 21 and 22 emphasise the speaker’s desire for longevity
- Owen completes stanza two with an eleven syllable couplet where the last ‘y’ of ‘bloody’ and ‘body’ extends the pentameter by half an iamb to draw out the horror.
Owen draws Wild with All Regrets to a close by adding an additional foot to the final couplet. The alexandrine adds weight and dignity to the dying man’s last words. We don’t ‘get away with’ the easy regularity of the iambic pentameter but are forced to go the extra distance with the dying man.
The rhythm of frustration
Owen uses punctuation to create a number of caesurae that depict the frustrated energies of the dying man. In l.5 this rhythm cuts across the iambs:
Similarly, in l.11, we hear a realistic spoken voice, summing up his past:
Well, || that's / what I / learnt. || That, ||/ and mak / ing mon (ey).
This joltiness becomes smoother as the speaker draws closer to his end. The gently alliterating ‘ch’ of ‘chill’, ‘chest’ and ‘chased’ l.33-4, is further softened by the sibilant ‘s’ sounds – the ‘st’ and ‘sp’ of ‘stay’ and ‘spirit’ l.32-3 becoming simpler ‘sobs’ and ‘sighs’ l.34-5. The dying ‘w’ is repeated to bring the poem to its close: ‘weaned’ l.36, ‘without what .. wound’ l.37.
Investigating structure and versification in Wild with All Regrets
- In his letter to Sassoon, Owen asks, ‘What do you think of my vowel-rime stunt?’ Read the poem aloud with a friend. Take an alternate line each.
- Listen to the way the ‘end words’ echo each other and make a note of the exceptions.
- Which pair or trio of lines do you find most moving? Can you say why?
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