A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Arms and the Boy’

A critical reading of a war poem

‘Arms and the Boy’ is one of the most powerful war poems written by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). In this post, we analyse Owen’s poem in terms of its overall meaning, but also offer a close reading of the poem’s language and imagery.

Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

‘The first casualty of war is innocence’, as the old line has it. Owen’s title, ‘Arms and the Boy’, wryly plays on the opening lines of Roman poet Virgil’s great epic The Aeneid: ‘Arms and the man I sing’. Whereas Virgil’s words usher in a poem detailing high heroic deeds and the founding of an empire (Aeneas was the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome), Owen’s title focuses on the way war corrupts and destroys youthful innocence. And this war will not make a new empire. Indeed, four empires would crumble by the end of the First World War. (Owen wrote ‘Arms and the Boy’ in spring 1918, around eight months before the end of the war.)

A summary of ‘Arms and the Boy’ first: an unidentified speaker says to let a boy feel the edge of a bayonet blade so he Wilfred Owencan experience how cold the steel is – and how hungry for blood it is. The bayonet-blade is immediately personified, and personified as like a madman – unpredictable and possibly dangerous. The boy, we are told, will see that the bayonet-blade is a malicious shade of blue: like the flash of a madman’s anger. The speaker of the poem then says that the boy should stroke the blind lead bullets that – continuing the personification – want to bury themselves in the hearts of young men. The boy should hold the cartridges with their ‘fine zinc teeth’ which are sharp with ‘grief and death’; by contrast, the boy’s teeth look fit for nothing more than biting – indeed, not even biting, laughing – around an apple, suggesting a schoolboy scrumping for apples or something equally innocent and carefree. This boy has no claws, talons or antlers, like a wild animal. But war will make him into one.

The implication of ‘Arms and the Boy’, then – offered ironically by Owen – is that the killing instinct embodied in the fighting of the First World War was not natural, and that young men had to become inured to the weird and deadly weapons of death which were used to kill men in many ways no different from them, unlike the eagle or deer which uses its talons or antlers (respectively) to defend itself, its family, or its territory, and exists in a natural state of conflict and struggle. Man has had to invent unnatural machines for killing.

The half-rhymes – a Wilfred Owen trademark – of ‘Arms and the Boy’ neatly capture here that something is amiss about introducing a young boy to these instruments of death: ‘leads’ and ‘lads’ in that second stanza brings the boy and the bullet uncomfortably close, while flesh and blood in that first stanza – shorthand, in proverbial parlance, for man’s fallibility – find themselves rubbing up against the ‘flash’ and ‘blade’ denoting, respectively, the flash of a madman’s anger and the deadly edge of the bayonet. Not only this, but Owen’s syntax grimly hints at a double meaning:

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger for blood;

The blade is the one that is hungry for blood, of course, but we know this is poetic licence or anthropomorphism: blades are inanimate objects, and it is more likely to be the boy who is bloodthirsty. Whilst the syntax attaches this bloodthirstiness or bloodhungriness to the blade, common sense, regrettably, wants to attach it to the human, boy though he is.

And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

God did not make man to have ‘talons’, like the eagle, or ‘antlers’, like the deer – nature’s weapons for killing (with ‘talons’ almost anagrammatically reworking itself as ‘antlers’, encouraging a kinship between these weapons of war which bayonets and ‘bullet-leads’ can hardly share). Nor will such fighting instincts as are encoded in these God-given weapons naturally arise: they have to be inculcated.

‘Arms and the Boy’ shows, right from its title onwards, Wilfred Owen’s gift for sardonic irony. But have we missed anything out of this analysis? What else do you think Owen is saying in this poem?

Continue to explore Owen’s poetry with our summary and analysis of his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

Image: Wilfred Owen (author unknown: image taken from 1920 edition of Poems of Wilfred Owen), Wikimedia Commons.

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