By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Next War’ is a relatively little-known Wilfred Owen poem: compared with his great sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, this sonnet is practically invisible to all but the most diehard fans of Wilfred Owen or war poetry. Yet this poem offers an interesting insight into Owen’s work. Before we offer an analysis of ‘The Next War’, here’s a reminder of the poem:
The Next War
War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death, –
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, –
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, –
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, – knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.
‘The Next War’: summary and analysis
As Jon Stallworthy noted in his excellent edition, The War Poems Of Wilfred Owen, Wilfred Owen wrote ‘The Next War’ at Craiglockhart Hospital in September 1917 and revised the poem at Scarborough in July the following year.
When he sent the first draft home to his mother, it was in the hope that his younger brother Colin would read the poem and heed its message: ‘I included my “Next War” in order to strike a note. I want Colin to read, mark, learn etc it.’ The epigraph to the poem is from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘A Letter Home’.
‘The Next War’ is unusual in Owen’s oeuvre in offering an almost comical image of Death – personified as the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe – sitting down amongst Owen and his fellow soldiers and being their ‘chum’. Far from being the soldiers’ enemy, Death is their friend.
As the poem’s final line reveals, Owen believes the rhetoric of brave soldiers fighting against Death to be just that: empty rhetoric. However, it is the sort of rhetoric that young men in future wars will also believe.
Owen and his fellow soldiers, however, see the reality: they are not fighting Death to preserve their lives, but other men (the Germans) for ‘flags’: i.e. it’s a territorial dispute between nations and empires. Here the famous ‘pity of war’ which Owen sought to convey through his poetry is less pronounced: this poem (as its epigraph from Owen’s friend and fellow soldier perhaps suggests) could almost have been written by the angry, satirical Sassoon, and in some ways is Owen’s tribute to Sassoon’s own poetry.
‘The Next War’ portrays Death in an almost light-hearted way, with the image of him spilling food (those mess-tins) bordering on slapstick. However, there is something sinister in the ‘green thick odour of his breath’, if we recall Owen’s description of poison gas in his most famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’:
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
‘The Next War’: form
‘The Next War’ is a sonnet, although its rhyme scheme is unusual: abbacddcefefgg. This makes the poem a curious combination of the Petrarchan sonnet (with the enclosed rhymes in the first eight lines: abba) and the Shakespearean sonnet (with the use of seven different rhymes across the poem, and the concluding rhyming couplet).
The best way to categorise the poem is to see it as a Shakespearean sonnet but with enclosed rhymes in the first two quatrains (abba cddc) rather than alternate rhymes (abab cdcd). What’s more, the c rhymes are a curious twisting of the a rhymes: Death and breath are contorted into writhe and scythe.
Drawing on the technique of pararhyme which Owen made so much his own, these rhymes, along with the enclosed form (abba), echo the uneasy closeness between the soldiers and Death. Having made good friends with Death is not a healthy sign: it’s a sign that death has come to be seen as the one sure way of escaping the horrors of war.