Great War Poetry Minute: Arms and the Boy by Wilfred Owen MC

Owen, a British officer, composed poetry in the final year of his life, 1917-1918. He seems to have begun writing in earnest whilst confined at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh with “neurasthenia,” aka shell-shock (or as we say today, PTSD). He had become a pacifist by his experience of war, and through his deep Christian faith. But after meeting Siegfied Sassoon, a war hero who wound up in Craiglockhart after disrupting Parliament with a pacifist demonstration, Owen formed the idea that he “must get some reputation for gallantry before I could… declare my principles.”

He returned to the Front in September 1918, telling his brother, “”I know I shall be killed. But it’s the only place I can make my protest from.” His statement was prescient: Owen, the Christian turned warrior to secure a platform from which to redeclare his Christian pacifism, quickly established a reputation for bravery, but was shot and killed on 4 November 1918, a mere week before the Armistice.  The site War Poetry UK calls him “The greatest of the war poets who have written in the English language,” which is all the more remarkable for his very short span of work, and the few poem he wrote (perhaps thirty in all), of which only five were published before the end of the war, three anonymously. His letters are quite as engaging, and as poetic in their language as anyone else’s self conscious poetry. He wrote to Sasson, enroute to the front: “This is what the shells scream at me every time: ‘Haven’t you got the wits to keep out of this?'”  

The death of Owen, the brief flash of his talent, is a microcosm of the loss to humanity that was the First World War. While he is best remembered for the bitter “Dulce et Decorum est,” this less-known poem is presented for your consideration. -Ed.


Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.


We shan’t say much about the poem itself, except that the alliteration/consonance/vowel-shift rhyme scheme (the specific term for which appears to be “pararhyme”) is unusual and vaguely disturbing, and that the poem was likely inspired by (or contrapuntal to) Sassoon’s The Kiss, which we discussed back in 2013. -Ed.

7 thoughts on “Great War Poetry Minute: Arms and the Boy by Wilfred Owen MC

  1. James F.

    Went back to your earlier bayonet post (about how obsolete they aren’t) and it reminded me that in Jerry Pournelle’s book WEST OF HONOR (published 1976) a Captain says “Ever think, Lieutenant, that every military generation since World War One has thought theirs would be the last to carry bayonets?”

    The year is 2064, and they’re debarking from a starship, carrying a weapon meant to convert a musket into a pike.

    Pournelle himself had a bayonet in Korea in 1950, and American soldiers downrange still have them .

    Not all of Pournelle’s Future History came true, but if men actually do debarked from spaceships with rifles, they’ll probably have bayonets.

    1. Kirk

      I suspect the bayonet is going to be with us for a long time to come, and mostly for psychological reasons.

      You want compliance? The average idiot isn’t going to respect the rifle, because they know how much trouble the shooter is likely to get in. The bayonet? Sheeeee-it… Those bastards could cut you, with those things. Plus, humans have an almost involuntary atavistic fear of getting poked at with sharp things, so it’s a very easy way to influence their behavior. Just seeing the damn things can be enough–The fact that they’re mounted on rifles with full-auto switches? That doesn’t seem to register; the rifle isn’t “real” to their hindbrains.

      The bayonet is a handy tool, and it’s a lot better to have a knife with some stand-off (also known to specialists as a “spear”) than to have to get up close and personal to stick it in someone.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that bayonets aren’t ever going to be as obsolete as the theorists think they are, and if they ever get stupid and remove the mountings for them entirely, we’ll probably see people using hundred-mile-an-hour tape to affix some form of sharpened implement to the end of their personal weapons.

      Now, me, personally? I’d by far prefer that they issued a modern titanium version of the old Lebel bayonet, the one the French Poilus called “Rosalie”. That way, you could use the thing as a mine probe, and it would still serve as a bayonet. The combination, all-singing, all-dancing abortions that they came up with for the AK-47, and which we copied for the M9 bayonet? Y’all can keep those bastards. A knife bayonet is only good for one damn thing, and that’s getting stuck on shit once you stick it into someone’s torso. Whether it’s their ribcage or their webgear/uniform, the damn things are still stuck, and then you’re standing there trying to get it out while his buddies are understandably upset and trying to kill you. Far better to do a stab-and-jab with something like the French cruciform bayonet, which you can get into and out of a ribcage a half-dozen times in the period with which you’ll find yourself struggling with one of those multi-purpose POS designs. The M9 blade, for example? I think that thing was designed with the sole purpose of looking good, and nobody involved in the design/procurement process actually ever bothered to stick it into anything even semi-realistic. Having done that with one when they first came out, I can tell you I’m not going to be wasting my time with one of those suckers on the end of my rifle–We had to take a sawzall to the side of over-aged beef we were using as a test target to get the damn thing out. It got wedged in there in between a couple of ribs, and hung up on the serrations. The AK-47 bayonet was about as bad, small comfort there… M7 did a lot better, but the star of the show was the spike bayonet on a Chinese SKS clone. That sucker was a positive joy to use, and if I ever have any input into bayonet design, that’s the one we’d copy. In titanium, and which we’d also use as a mine probe.

      To me, the AK-47 bayonet was one of those things that the Soviets came up with, and which we copied out of a fit of “Gotta keep up with the Joneskis…”, never pausing to consider whether or not it was a good idea or not. Kinda like the whole IFV concept embodied in the BMP and the Bradley; some things are mistakes you ought to just let the enemy make on his own, and not try to copy and make work for yourself…

        1. Kirk

          And, I suspect there was a reason the SEAL teams went to a propmaster for the design… Just like I kinda halfway suspect that they have classes taught by Hollywood makeup artists after BUDS, too…

          Seriously, though–If you’re gonna design a bayonet, fertheluvagawd, why the hell don’t you actually try, y’know, sticking in something, or someone, just to see if it works? The M9 absolutely just sucks on that whole “put it in, take it out” aspect of the business. And, on top of it? The damn blades are friggin’ fragile as hell, especially when they’re not properly heat-treated the way a lot of the later models were. I’ve lost track of the number of those things I’ve seen snapped off when someone put some lateral force on ’em.

          Basically, the M9 is kinda the modern-day equivalent of Marshal Blucher’s admonition to the quartermaster that the infantryman ought to carry an axe, because he might have to break down a door. Too much of that crap, and the all-singing, all-dancing “solution” to ten problems in one device starts to turn flatly comical. Anyone who finds themselves under a five-ton with an M9, and trying to cut their way through a ball of concertina that an idiot teenage driver tried bulling through, and which is now wrapped around multiple axles…? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about, especially since the commander decided to conduct hand receipt triage on the wire-cutting bolt cutters, and turned them all in, on the theory that since we had the M9, we didn’t need to carry those in the BII boxes anymore…

          Can you tell I’m not a fan of the damn things?

  2. Bill Robbins

    I made reference in a previous post about WWI literature to a lesser-known (outside of Israel) writer-poet and veteran of the eastern front, who fought in the Austro-Hungarian trenches against the Russians. For those interested, see I have read many of the WWI authors from Great Britain, France, and Germany, and Hameiri stands right beside his better-known contemporaries and fellow WWI combatants. Except, Hameiri (born Feuerstein, in Austro-Hungary), wrote in Hebrew. Hameiri also fought in Israel’s war of independence, in 1948. Tough guy with a pen.

  3. Kirk

    (sigh) WordPress has put another post of mine into purdah…

    I’d love to know what the hell it keys off of, because it just seems to be more random than anything else…

  4. Haxo Angmark

    Owen wasn’t that great a poet. Doesn’t “grief” (line 8) rhyme better with “teeth” (line 7) than “Death” (line 8)? Of course it does.

    @ Bill Robbins…I’m always on the lookout for new f/h accounts of the ’14-’18 Eastern Front…thanks for the Hameiri refr.

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