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Poetry CritiqueSonnet

On seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

Begun when? It is thought July 1917 and revised, probably, the following year. A conventional sonnet, having a fairly regular beat, the rhythm slightly disturbed by the mixture of starting-off iambs and trochees. Conventional also in content? A message that captures the mood of the times? Consider the first eight lines, the octet.

They consist of four unrhymed couplets, all in imperative mood. " Be…..lifted up", "Sway steep….", "Reach at that….", "Speed our resentment….."

War needs to be prepared for - "…..for years rehearse" (3) in order to bring about just vengeance on "Arrogance which needs thy harm" (5) by means of, for example, this Great Gun which destroys with metaphorical curses and uttered imprecations: sound images to mark the stridency that the waging of war entails.

These eight lines reflect the ambience of a mighty war machine geared up to resist the aggression of a hostile power, i.e. Germany. The "long black arm" (1) of the gun, the imprecations that are "huge" (4), the "blasting" charm (4) all convey the force with which arrogance is to be beaten down, and the "shapes of flame" (8) into which the nation's wealth is poured.

There is the spiritual aspect also. The lifting of the gun, "towering towards Heaven" (2), like the elevation of the Host, proclaims divine sanction for a just war dedicated to the destruction of the enemy "before its sins grow worse" (6); and to the sacrifice of a nation's men --"our breaths in storm" (8) in this same righteous cause.

Fine. But there's one thing wrong. It does not sound like Owen, does it?

Where else in the poetry or the letters do we find militarism forcibly expressed like this? True he could write

The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,

Is over all the width of Europe whirled


But that was then. He didn't write in that mode once he'd seen something of war and had begun to think. It didn't take him long to reject the notion that God was in France fighting on the side of the Allies. On the contrary, "Christ is literally in no man's land", he'd decided by May 1917 which was before, in all likelihood, he'd composed this particular sonnet; certainly before he came under Sassoon's influence. Cursing the Hun and preaching vengeance wasn't Owen's style. His imprecations were not directed against those he was fighting but those who, for whatever purpose, had arranged things that way.

To read lines 9-14, the sestet, is to realise that the preceding 1-8 are heavy with irony.

Yet, for men's sakes………..

But not withdrawn……….. (9-11)

"Yet". After the uncompromising assertiveness, qualification, a let-out clause. For whose men's sakes must this great gun (symbol surely for the whole mass of armaments) not be decommissioned once the war is over ("thy spoilure done")? Britain's? Germany's? Without being too positive at this stage, it is tempting to infer men on both or every side. "Malison" (9), French, mal, bad, hardly suggests total approval. "Innocent of enmity" can surely be classed as a good thing.

Already we sense a change of tone, a hint of softness, but then,

Be not withdrawn, dark arm…..(11)

Why, if its effects are evil, not withdraw it? Because it should be kept I readiness? That's possible especially when we read on.

Safe to the bosom of our prosperity (12)

Hang on to it then. We may need to protect our commercial interests.

However, after these seeming twists and turns, in the final couplet Owen declares himself openly.

But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,

May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!. (13-14)

With "spell" we are back to "blasting charm" (4). National prestige sustained by weight of arms has seduced, has cast its spell over mankind down the ages; an illusion Owen explodes in that final devastating line. Only now, when all that can be said on the other side has been said, can the overturn be complete.

Unlike the main body of Owen's war poetry, the "Artillery" sonnet reverts to the language of the past, is consciously poetical, uses such archaisms as "spoilure" and "malison" and Biblical "thee's, thou's and thy's, and personifies this "piece of heavy artillery" in elevated terms.

One last irony. Why, in an essentially anti-war poem, are we left at the end with a picture of God Himself cast in revengeful terms, straight out of the Old Testament?

Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001

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