The speaker says to let the boy feel the edge of the bayonet blade to know how cold steel is and how hungry for blood it is. He will see how it is a malicious shade of blue like a "madman's flash" and is hungry for flesh.
The boy should stroke the blind bullets that desire nothing more than to bury themselves in the hearts of young men. He should hold the cartridges of the "fine zinc teeth" that are sharp with death and anguish.
He should do these things because his teeth look ready to bite an apple, and there are no claws behind his fingernails. God will not give him talons or antlers in his curls.
This is one of Owen's most devastating and incisive poems. It was written around March 1918. It is organized in three quatrains featuring pararhymes – blade, blood; flash, flesh; teeth, death. Owen classified this poem under "Protest –the unnaturalness of weapons" as well as listed it under his intended works for his first poetry collection. The title of the poem may be a reference to George Bernard Shaw's play about war, Arms and the Man, performed in 1894 and published in 1898, or the first line of Virgil's Aeneid –"I sing of arms and man" – also a tale of battle and glory and despair.
Letters of Owen's to his mother from around this time speak of young men and cynically of their role as killing machines; in one he writes "Johnny de la Touche leaves school this term, I hear, and goes to prepare for the Indian army. He must be a creature of killable age by now", and "God so hated the world that He gave several million of English-begotten sons, that whosoever should believe in them should not perish, but have a comfortable life."
The poem begins with someone instructing a young boy to touch a bayonet blade. It is unclear who Owen's poetic voice is intended to be, but it is most likely the masters of war who are instructing young, naive, and innocent children to fight for them. The speaker is either trying to make the boy understand what he is in for in order to prepare him, or to get the boy excited about the dangerous weapons he will soon get to play with. The bayonet is personified into a ravenous and bloodthirsty animal, with a "hunger of blood". It is also depicted as a bit insane, "blue with all malice" like "a madman's flash". The weapon, and the chaos it can wield, seems unpredictable and crazed.
In the second stanza the boy is told to stroke the bullet heads, which, personified, only long to bury themselves in the hearts of young men. The cartridges are compared to sharp teeth of "grief and death". The word "stroke" in this stanza has a somewhat sensual or erotic air, as if the boy is being seduced into desiring to use these weapons. This is, of course, what happened to many young men who embraced killing and thus parted ways with their childhood.
In the final stanza, the speaker contrasts the weapons with the boy. He is gentle, with "fingers supple". His teeth are not sharp or animal-like, as they are more fit for "laughing around an apple". He will not grow talons like a bird of prey or antlers like a beast of the forest. This will not happen because God will not let it, Owen explains. The boy is not fundamentally evil. This means, then, that it is man, and his weapons of war, that pervert Nature and turn this boy into a killing machine. He will take responsibility for guiding the "blind" bullets to their targets, to giving the "famished" bayonet the blood it desires. Of course, the weapons do not appear in a vacuum; they are provided by the warmakers to the young men; therefore, Owen is excoriating those who take innocent boys, upend the natural cycle, and make them killers.