"Oh! Jesus Christ! I'm hit," he said; and died.
Owen made a point of choosing attention-grabbing opening lines, though few are as stark as this one. (THE LETTER has "Guh! Christ! I'm hit. Take 'old, Aye, bad." But that comes in the body of the poem.)
The earliest draft of THE LAST LAUGH dated February 1918 was titled LAST WORDS and Owen sent it to his mother whose religious susceptibilities may have received a jolt on her reading what was the first line:
"O Jesus Christ!" one fellow sighed
Perhaps she would have been mollified by his comment:
There is a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer.
As in this first verse.
Or perhaps not, for on 21st February he was writing to her:
That "Last Words" seems to have had rather a harrowing effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.
The poem having been chastened over several revisions and given a more penetrating title, it emerged with a regular stanza pattern but irregular metre, rhythm and rhyme: indeed pararhyme predominates. No soothing effects there and the same applies to mood and content. There seem to be six lines of what might be called "proper" poetry, while the rest could be extracts from children's nursery (un)rhymes. Children love onomatopoeia, and "chirped", "chuckled", "spat" "hissed" etc come in this category.
A typical Owen effect is his personifying of inanimate objects. Here the bullets, guns, bayonets and so on, all display human, or at least animal, characteristics, making the antagonism more real by casting them, not as the instruments, but as the agents of instruction.
Little I'd ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting; all the arts of hurting
Owen wrote in ironic vein in A TERRE. Nevertheless, the weapons of war did interest him in that their details feature in his output to a fairly immoderate extent: rifles, machine guns, big guns, shells, poison gas. We tend to forget that from a teenager Owen had been used to handling guns. he writes of having "a little shooting match" with his uncle. He shot in Bordeaux, bought his own miniature rifle in Aldershot, an automatic pistol in Amiens. He did well on his musketry course at Mytchett; went revolver shooting for pleasure in Scarborough and "scored dead central Bulls with five shots in a 4 inch group" in a friendly contest at Fleetwood.
We may sense a slight ambivalence in Owen's feelings about weapons. As well as providing a measurement of his skills, their raw power may have exerted a fascination. Certainly in this poem it is the bullets and shrapnel etc. that come out on top.
Who are the victims? (1) An old sweat whose language, however it may be interpreted, is of the Army. (2) A young soldier, not long from home, who invokes his parents:
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead
(3) A somewhat older conscript with thoughts of wife or girl friend, "love-languid", his kiss destined for the wrong quarter altogether.
In each case the momentary response is different. Blasphemy/prayer, wistfulness and resignation, sentiment. Only the manner of their destroyers is the same. Chuckling, guffawing, tittering, grinning. In a word, derision. "Fool!" proclaims the shrapnel cloud.
"Tut-tut!" the machine guns mock sardonically. "In vain, vain, vain" snigger the bullets.
At the beginning we were introduced to what we thought would prove to be an interesting and important theme, the relationship between blasphemy and prayer. But it doesn't happen. Any question about ethics is simply irrelevant. In the terms Owen offers us in this particular poem, ethics don't come into it. The armaments of war have knocked morality sky high and theirs is unquestionably the last laugh.
We may ask whether Owen ever wrote a more cynical, dispiriting poem than this, in which nihilism reigns and everything amounts to nothing in the end. As in the case of the young soldier,
Then smiled at nothing……..being dead
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001