Red lips are not as red as the stones stained with the blood of English boys. The speaker tells Love that its eyes lose their attraction compared with the eyes that the speaker has blinded. Love's attitude is not as exquisite as the limbs that have been cut by knives, rolling about where God "seems not to care". The limbs' "fierce love" will force them to cramp up in death's "decrepitude".
Love's voice is not as soft as the wind through a "raftered loft", and its voice is not as dear or clear as the voices that no one hears any more now that the earth has stopped their sad mouths.
The speaker tells Heart that it was never as hot or large or full as those hit with shots. Even though its hand is pale, so are all of the hands that carry the cross "through flame and hail". The speaker says to weep since "you may touch them not".
"Greater Love" is a complicated poem and one that might pose more difficulty for the average student, especially as compared to Owen's other works, which are more obvious in their depiction of the trials and travails of soldiers during WWI. Its exact date of composition is unknown. The tone is straightforward, the rhyme scheme similarly situated. The metre is a series of iambs and trochees. The title may come from a letter Owen wrote in May 1917 that quoted from the Gospel: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so" (see "Le Christianisme" Summary and Analysis for more on Owen's religious views).
In the first stanza Owen opens with a startling image – red lips, a classic image of romance and sensuality, are not as red as the stones stained with the blood of English boys. He is trying to, in a rather mordant way, call attention to the horrible things that occur in war and how silly and superficial romance and sentiment seem in the face of such horrors. This continues, as Owen, with his dry wit, says that Love's eyes pale beside the eyes that he has "blinded in my stead".
In the second stanza Owen says that "your" attitude is not as exquisite as severed limbs rolling about until they finally ossify in death's grasp. He throws in an impious opinion that "God seems not to care". In the third stanza he continues his critique, saying that Love's voice is not as compelling as the wind, or as the voices of dead soldiers that can no longer be heard. In the fourth stanza he speaks to "Heart" and says it was never as hot or as large as those shot at, and the pale hand was never as pale as those on the battlefield. Finally, ambiguously, and similar to the last lines of "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo" ("These men are worth / Your tears: You are not worth their merriment"), Owen says, "Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not".
What, then, does the poem mean? Owen seems to suggest that the artificialities of love pale in comparison to the true honor and love of men on the battlefield – men who cough, struggle, and die. Owen is calling attention to the authenticity of these soldiers' actions and finding within them meaning. Of course, dirty and dying soldiers are not often the subjects of beautifully phrased poems, and Owen makes a case that such harsh reality deserves a place in literature – he can take a subject seemingly unfit for high English poetry and elevate it to a dignified and relevant position.
Some modern critics have looked at the poem in light of gender and sex. In James Najarian's article on Owen and the theme of eroticism in his oeuvre, he sees "Greater Love" as supportive of bonds between men and slightly denigrating of normative heterosexuality. He writes that Owen argues, "that same-sex love has the potential to be 'greater' because it cannot be co-opted into conventional roles and dissipated by conventional poetic gestures. Owen reduces heterosexuality to 'kindness' because it has the potential to become rapidly pedestrian." Furthermore, same-sex love is purer because "it is all love; it will not be diluted or circumscribed by prevailing poetic expression, and it radiates outward in the form of sympathy."