Arms and the Boy

Children were much in Wilfred Owen's mind when he wrote to his mother from Ripon on Easter Sunday 31st March 1918.

Outside my cottage window (at Borage Lane) children play soldiers so piercingly that I've moved into the attic, with only a skylight.

It is a jolly Retreat. There I have tea and contemplate the inwardness of war, and behave in an owlish manner generally. One poem I have written there; and thought another

And in the same letter,

Johnny de la Touche (whom he had tutored in Bordeaux 1914-15) leaves school this term, I hear, and goes to prepare for the Indian Army. He must be a creature of killable age by now.

Cynically he added,

God so hated the world that He gave several millions of English-begotten sons, that whosoever believeth in them should not perish, but have a comfortable life.

A sentiment adjacent to, but at the same time removed from, the gist of ARMS AND THE BOY which was written around this time. Owen classified it in his draft list of contents under 'Protest - the unnaturalness of weapons'. Later he listed it among the poems intended for his first collection.

It consists of three regular quatrains exclusively in pararhymes that reflect the tone, so that in stanzas 1 and 2, they are full of menace, e.g. 'blade-blood' and 'teeth-death', but in the final stanza, when God comes in, they are redolent of less sinister matters ('apple-supple' and 'heels-curls').

Stanza 1

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade (1)

Command? Plea? Advice? Given by whom? Not Owen himself, we judge, but Owen on behalf of those who would initiate children into -

Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting as he had already written (again, in another's voice) in A TERRE.

Personification makes weapons diabolical as well as lethal.

…keen with hunger of blood (2)

Owen has used the device before, for instance in ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH, INSENSIBILITY, the ARTILLERY sonnet and THE LAST LAUGH.

Again,

Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash (3)

'Blue' as in the coldness of steel? What does the simile signify? A madman's sudden unpredictable movement or passion? Or the coloured patch of cloth that the mad were made to wear as a distinguishing emblem? Words as rich as this often carry ambiguity with them. Parallels too.

And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh (4)

Such a desire for sustenance finds common cause with revolutionary France's Madame Guillotine and her voracious appetite.

Stanza 2

In contrast is more sensuous.

Lend him to stroke…(5)

Once more we're bidden to accustom the boy to the feel of a range of weapons and ammunition. Bluntness replaces sharpness, with sexual overtones. To 'stroke' and 'nuzzle' seem to imply erotic pleasure in handling instruments of destruction. Stanza One's sharpness makes a return in line 8 but with a mental as well as physical connotation, alluding as it does to the 'grief and death' experienced by those who die and those who mourn - a stern reminder that what may begin as inappropriate self-indulgence will result inevitably in misery and extinction.

Stanza 3

If Owen himself came into focus in line 8 he remains in view in the last stanza with his reminder of what this boy, who is being led towards militancy, in essence, ideally, is. Nature, including the human variety dominates the picture. Teeth are not for forming part of a cartridge but for 'laughing round an apple' (9). Fingers that caressed the bayonet-blade are simply 'supple' and no claws lurk behind them. The boy's 'thick curls' speak of youthful innocence.

And God will grow no talons at his heels (11)

No use leaving it to God then? So complain the prophets of war, whose aim is to arm this boy and other boys. At the same time the poem's other voices, those of the preachers of peace, they rejoice.

God comes out of ARMS AND THE BOY better than He does from those other poems about weaponry, SOLDIER'S DREAM and the ARTILLERY sonnet.

Unless, that is, we believe Owen capable of the sort of irony that most of us would think inappropriate.


Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001