By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Last Laugh’ is a poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), drafted in February 1918 (as ‘Last Words’) but only first published after Owen’s death in November 1918, one week before the Armistice. Although not his most famous poem by any means, ‘The Last Laugh’ is one of his most stark and direct. Before we move to an analysis of the poem, here it is:
The Last Laugh
‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
The Bullets chirped—In vain, vain, vain!
Machine-guns chuckled—Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
And the Big Gun guffawed.
Another sighed,—‘O Mother,—mother,—Dad!’
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
And the splinters spat, and tittered.
‘My Love!’ one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed.
‘The Last Laugh’ comprises three stanzas, each of which follows roughly the same pattern. In each stanza, a soldier falls and dies, uttering an invocation to another (Jesus; his parents; his beloved or sweetheart). In each case, as the man dies, the weapons of war make sounds which seem to mock the fallen man. There is no answer from Jesus, the soldier’s mum and dad, or his lover: only the guns, bayonets, and shells respond.
This is the grim truth of war: there is no consolation for those who give their lives on the battlefield. As Owen puts it in one of his most famous poems, ‘Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons.’
And indeed, as in Owen’s use of ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ to echo the sound of the gunfire, ‘The Last Laugh’ is a poem of onomatopoeia: many words evoke the sounds of the guns, bullets, and bombs, from the way the ‘Bullets chirped’ to the way the ‘Machine-guns chuckled’ with the sound ‘Tut-tut! Tut-tut!’
And the alliteration, consonance, and assonance of ‘splinters spat, and tittered’ keenly conveys the mocking sound of the splinters produced by the explosion of the shell.
And such attention to sound works more subtly elsewhere in the poem, too: for instance, the slow ‘l’ and ‘s’ sounds at the beginning of the poem’s final stanza suggest one grown sluggish from lovesickness, but also the torpor of someone who ‘moaned’ not in the ecstasy of love (or lovemaking) but the agony of painful death: ‘Love-languid seemed his mood, / Till slowly lowered …’
And look at the way the poor soldier’s ‘face kissed the mud’, in a grim and unintended parody of lovemaking; and how ‘kissed’ will, just a few lines later, be grimly contorted into ‘hissed’ in the poem’s final line. (‘Gas hissed’ is another example of onomatopoeia, of course.)
Similarly, the soldier who will never kiss his beloved again ‘moaned’, just as the ‘Shells’ seem mockingly to answer him when they ‘groaned’.
Why ‘The Last Laugh’? Because death (or Death) will have the last laugh in the end. Not love, nor life, not any religious consolation (although strong religious believers would doubtless disagree with that). The machinery of death will always triumph over the human will.
This is a bleak poem, and one of the things that make it unusually bleak even by the normal standards of a Wilfred Owen poem is the fact that Owen gives these machines a ‘voice’ of sorts, displacing the human voices that begin each stanza and quickly moving them to the side as the laughter of the guns and shells takes over. The human focus is side-lined here to make way for the bayonet and the machine-gun.
‘The Last Laugh’ demonstrates Wilfred Owen’s trademark skill with pararhyme or slant rhyme. So we get ‘and died’ rhymed (or half-rhymed) with ‘indeed’, ‘Dad’ with ‘dead’, ‘mood’ with ‘mud’, and ‘grinned’ with ‘groaned’. But Owen’s deployment of rhyme is less structured than in most of his other poems, and there is no clear rhyme scheme.
The five lines of each stanza open with a couplet in pararhyme, and twelve of the poem’s fifteen lines end on a ‘d’ sound (we might include ‘Tut-tut!’ as a thirteenth, given the closeness of ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds). But otherwise, after this initial pair of lines joined by pararhyme, the sounds at the ends of each stanza’s succeeding lines are not employed in anything approaching a systematic way.
Although ‘The Last Laugh’ is not Owen’s best-known poem, it’s another powerful example of the destructiveness of war, and how nothing – not love, nor family, nor even God – can help those who are unlucky enough to get caught up in the mass carnage of an industrial war.