Owen, a young soldier himself, was very aware of the naïveté evinced by many of the soldiers who enlisted. They were not prepared for what they would experience and hardly knew how to grapple with the carnage and absurdity of war. These boys were turned into men far earlier than they should have been. Several of Owen's poems allude to the loss of innocence that is a concomitant of war. The soldiers enlist for superficial reasons and dream only of glory; they fret about their lack of appeal to women once they've returned home missing a limb; they marvel over the sleekness of weapons and do not fathom their destructive power. Owen captures this tragedy of war - the march of old men sending young men off to kill and die.
Brotherhood and friendship
Several of Owen's poems depict the deep bonds of friendship and understanding that develop between soldiers. Shorn of their familial connections, these young men have only each other to rely on. This brotherly love is even more powerful than erotic love, Owen suggests. Roses and red lips and soft voices are no match for the coarse sounds and images of war, for those sounds are more authentic, constituting the brutal context in which soldiers develop camaraderie. Friendship is one of the few things these soldiers have to live for, and Owen ably conveys its significance.
The horrors of war
Owen does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war. He makes his reader confront the atrocities on the battlefield and the indignities of life back home. He presents readers with soldiers who have lost their limbs and been victims of poison gas; young men mourning their dead comrades; ghastly battlefield dreamscapes; a cacophony of sounds terrifying in their unceasing monotony; and Nature's wrath. He shows how the war affects the young men who fight both physically and psychologically. The men who survive become inured to brutality. There is little to no glory and heroism, just scared or desensitized young men fighting for a cause they do not quite understand.
Disillusionment with religion
Owen was certainly a Christian, but he expressed profound disillusionment with organized religion in his letters and poems. He disliked the close connection between church and state and how the church was complicit in stoking the fires of war. He saw the rituals of the church as being cold comfort to the boys on the battlefield or the people who loved them back at home. Churches and statues of saints lost their potency amidst the incomprehensible atrocities of war. Owen was not advocating atheism at all, but he knew that faith had to be more personal and authentic than that dictated by the church fathers who were also involved in war machinations.
Nature is a strong theme in several of Owen's poems. Nature can be peaceful, calm, and supportive, comforting the men as they rest and revive. The sun, as a symbol of Nature herself, is viewed as a life-giving force that sustains men. However, Owen is convinced that war is a violation of Nature in its fury, carnage, and disruption of the innate cycle of life and death. Thus, when fighting breaks out, Nature also reflects the turmoil. In "Spring Offensive", most memorably, when the fighting begins, "the whole sky burned / With fury against them". Nature can no longer save the men.
The irrationality of war
Throughout Owen's poems the theme of the irrationality of the war is woven. The soldiers do not seem to know what they are fighting for, possessing no lofty goals and expressing no sentiment regarding why they are there. The rulers of Europe, as evinced by Abram in "Parable of the Old Man and the Young", seem concerned with their nation's pride above all else. The battles depicted in the poems are unconnected to each other, existing in a vacuum with seemingly no larger purpose. The horrors of war are not explained away or justified by a noble cause. Owen's view that the war is absurd and incomprehensible is quite manifest.
Emotion and feeling
No doubt drawing from personal experience, Owen is very sympathetic to the ways in which soldiers attempted to make sense of their peculiar and terrible situation on the front and back at home. He understands that many want to deaden and dull themselves to their thoughts and feelings in order to stave off the anguish over what they have done and seen. They are drained of vitality, able to laugh in the face of death. Owen wrestles with his thoughts on this, for while he understands this psychological response, he does not necessarily think excising all emotion is good, for it severs one's connection to humanity. A man must still be part of the fabric of life, no matter how difficult it may be.
Wilfred Owen: Poems Questions and Answers
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