THE SENTRY (January 1917)
The Sentry’ is a poem which grows directly out of an isolated incident in the trenches. It is wholly characteristic of Owen in that it focuses on the fate of one private soldier, the eponymous ‘sentry’ who is blinded and maimed by a ‘whizz-bang’. It is an extremely moving poem, for the focus is not only on the sentry’s pitiful reaction to his injuries, but also on Owen’s own haunted recollection of them.
The situation for the poem is ‘an old Boche dug-out’ which a party of English troops has taken, but not without being seen: consequently, it comes under enemy fire, ‘shell on frantic shell’ pounding its position. The co-opted dug-out is a ‘hell’ on earth, not only because of the artillery bombardment, but also because of the bad weather. It is raining heavily: into the dug-out pour ‘waterfalls of slime’ with the result that the men stand in ‘slush waist-high’ and cannot climb out. Even worse is the ‘murk of air’. In this genitive phrase, Owen adapts Lady Macbeth’s adjective (‘Hell is murky’) to his purpose; the dug-out is a hell-hole, not only because they cannot see through the smoke of the whizz-bangs, but also because of its olfactory sensations. It ‘stank old’; this combination of an Anglo-Saxon past tense and an adjectival adverb conveys the rank odour with a monosyllabic force. Owen’s language describes the conditions with verisimilitude; he suggests what it was like to cower and huddle in that enclosed space, its claustrophobic atmosphere redolent of the ‘fumes’ of cordite and the unhygienic ‘smell of men’, the German troops who had occupied that position for ‘years’ before vacating it.
Finally, one of the whizz-bangs hits its target, leaving them gasping for even a ‘sour’ breath of air. What happens next Owen records by means of onomatopoeic verbs. He accompanies the sentry’s entrance into the dug-out with a sequence of u-sounds: ‘thud! flump! thud!’. Down ‘the steep steps’ into their trench, he is said to come ‘thumping’ rather than merely falling or tumbling – so powerful and debilitating was the blast that blew him off his feet and into ‘hell’. When they retrieve his ‘body’ from the Biblical ‘flood’ of ‘slime’/‘slush’/‘muck’, they are surprised to discover that he is still alive.
Owen narrates this episode in rhymed iambic pentameter: in this poem, his metre is regular and his rhymes (lids/squids’) are full rhymes that dramatise the action and carry the narrative forward. In ‘The Sentry’, his verse moves with the formal precision of a sonnet. In this passage, he follows a couplet (which might conclude a sonnet) with a quatrain which might begin one:
We dredged him up, for dead, until he whined
‘O sir, my eyes – I’m blind – I’m blind – I’m blind!’
Coaxing, I held a flame against the lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time they’d get all right.
‘I can’t,’ he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids’,
Watch my dreams still –
Here, Owen meets the demands of rhyme and metre by a skilful combination of direct speech, indirect speech and plain description. The politeness with which the blinded sentry addresses his commanding officer (‘O sir’) stands in ironic juxtaposition to his repeated realisation that he has lost his sight, thereby inspiring a deep pity for him. Then, Owen’s recourse to indirect speech reproduces the matter-of-fact tone of voice in which he sought to reassure the man: in response to this assured tone, the sentry’s direct whine (‘I can’t’) sounds in even sharper conflict. It transpires that the sentry’s ‘eyeballs’ have been reduced to the consistency of jelly; from their sockets, the whites of his eyeballs bulge like squids’ eyes. It is this lurid detail [= the liquefied whites of his eyes] that returns to haunt the poet in his ‘dreams’.
Chris Woodhead (1984) remarks upon ‘a shocking intensity of descriptive detail’. In ‘The Sentry’, Owen records the continuing chaos by means of hypallage; he transfers the epithet ‘shrieking’ from the whizz-bangs (which do actually shriek) to the ‘air’ through which they hurtle – as if the air itself is terrified. In this chaos, he observes ‘other wretches, how they bled and spewed’ and forgets about the poor sentry. The simple movement of this iambic pentameter -
I try not to remember these things now
- conveys the calm that comes from his selective amnesia; the steady rhythm of the line suggests that he has regained his composure. Respite, however, is only temporary. The blinded and shell-shocked sentry has the last ‘word’. His ‘moans and jumps’ - not to mention ‘the wild chattering’ of his teeth - resurface in Owen’s consciousness and reclaim his attention:
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout,
‘I see your lights!’ - But ours had long gone out.
His haunting recollection is of the sentry’s voice, shouting – through the cacophony caused by the exploding shells – that he can ‘see’. He is insisting that he can see in order to reassure both his fellow soldiers and himself. Once more, Owen combines a dialogue and a description to dramatic effect: in the final couplet, the pity for the sentry lies in the poetic juxtaposition of his optimistic speech (‘I see your lights’) with the plain description (‘But ours had long gone out’) by which it is embarrassed. The pity proceeds from the dramatic irony at the sentry’s expense: he, being blind, does not know – whereas his comrades do - that their lamps have ‘long gone out’. Because they can see for themselves, his bravado has an unintended consequence: it exposes his noble pretence that he can see too.
INSENSIBILITY (November 1917)
‘Lions led by donkeys’ is a phrase popularly used to describe the British infantry of the First World War and to condemn the generals who commanded them. The contention is that the brave soldiers (‘lions’) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (‘donkeys’).
In his poetry, Captain Owen endorses the sentiment expressed by this unattributable phrase: namely, that his infantrymen are lion-hearted volunteers sent over the top of their trenches to certain death by ‘incompetent and indifferent generals’ such as Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861-1928) who was Commander of British Forces at the Battle of the Somme (1st July-18th November 1916) and the Battle of Passchendaele (31st July-6th November 1917).
Wilfred Owen’s most common reflection upon his fallen comrades is not that they have died in vain, but that they have died without ceremony. In Owen’s poetry, it is not sweet and fitting to die for one’s country when one’s country does not care that one has died for it. It exercises Owen that a man should make the ultimate sacrifice and that his contribution should then go unmarked: in ‘Anthem’, he demands to know where the bells are and where the candles are. Consistently, Owen’s response is not to the scale of the slaughter in Flanders, but to an individual death; he pays attention not to the widespread carnage, but to the plight of the individual soldier: ‘Move him into the sun’ (‘Futility’). In ‘Insensibility’, Owen is moved by this same impulse. Ian Hamilton (2002) attributes Owen’s special concern for the individual soldier to his homosexual feeling for ‘male beauty’: ‘It is perhaps this feeling for the bodies of the dead that makes Owen’s poetry more moving … .’
‘Insensibility’ consists of six stanzas which Owen chooses to signify by means of Roman numerals. There is no consistency between either stanza-length or line-length; nor does every line of a stanza rhyme or half-rhyme with another line of that stanza. ‘Insensibility’, however, is a technical achievement of great cleverness. It owes its complexity both to the syntactical organisation of the statements and to the networks of para-rhyme which endorse them. Jon Stallworthy (1990) asserts that the poem is ‘a Pindaric ode’: if so, then it is a somewhat ironic celebration of military triumph. In Stanza I, Owen (with echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry V) argues that the ‘men’ who are insensible of the dangers they face on the battle-fields of France are the ‘happy’ ones. Not only do these cold-blooded men go to their deaths unknowingly, but they can also stumble over the bodies of their fallen ‘brothers’ without pausing to count the cost in human terms:
The front line withers.
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling,
Losses, who might have fought
Longer, but no one bothers.
By contrast, Owen is acutely sensible of the cost and even pauses to make a self-conscious criticism of his ‘tearful fooling’ with this subject in poetry. He is conscious that, whilst he plays with fancy images (‘flowers’) and fancy rhymes, his ‘men’ are dying. His metonym for fallen front-line soldiers (‘gaps for filling’) is bitterly ironic at the expense of Haig’s attitude to the doomed youths under his command. The epithet sums up the fireside-generals’ attitude to such ‘losses’: that is, they are replaceable commodities about whom ‘no one bothers’.
In Stanza II, Owen’s strategy in this ambitious poem becomes clearer: it is to identify the different categories of men who benefit from one kind of ‘insensibility’ or another. In Stanza I, he pointed to those men who cope by means of a natural sang froid; in Stanza II, he concerns himself with men who ‘cease feeling’ to the point at which they cease even to calculate their own odds of survival. The horrific experience of front-line service leaves them numb:
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
‘Dullness’ (that Augustan word for unintelligence) covers the projected state of these minds; they cease even to wonder whether it was worth taking the King’s shilling. Having half-rhymed ‘themselves’ with ‘best solves’, Owen para-rhymes ‘shelling’ with ‘shilling’; but what about ‘arithmetic’, one of the most unpromising nouns ever to find itself in a rhyme-position? In Stanza II, there is no rhyme for ‘arithmetic’; if, however, we keep open our ears in Stanza III, then we shall hear ‘can not more ache’, a polysyllabic line-ending just listening for an echo. Between stanzas, there are other correspondences where at first it sounds as if there are blank lines: between ‘drags no pack’ and ‘men attack’, between ‘dusk’ and ‘task’ and between ‘battle’ and ‘our soul’/‘at all’ – echoes for which we must wait thirteen/nineteen lines. Inexact though these correspondent recurrences are, they serve deftly to unify a single meditation on the theme of ‘insensibility’.
In Stanza III, Owen’s third category of ‘happy’ men is of ‘these who lose imagination’. In the trenches, the power of a human imagination is an unnecessarily added burden; there, a man has ‘enough to carry with ammunition’ and can do without the further encumbrance of thought. The third, fourth and fifth sentences state the situation: namely, that the men’s senses (especially their eyes) have been cauterised by the heat ‘of battle’ with the chilling result that they ‘can laugh among the dying, unconcerned’. By their continuous exposure to the sights and the sounds of war, the soldiers have become permanently ‘insensible’. He describes them as desensitised to ‘the colour of blood’; exploding shells no longer hold any ‘terror’ for them; their ‘hearts’ (‘small-drawn’) no longer go out to their comrades. Such ‘insensibility’ enables them to carry on regardless of ‘the dying’ who surround them – an acquired talent for which they seem better off. The implication is that, in their insensible state, such troops are more fortunate than their sad captain who cannot shut his eyes to the bloodshed nor cease to feel pity.
Owen’s statements explain the situation, moving fluently from half-rhyme to half-rhyme (red/rid, ever/over) as they do so. Enright (1961) considers that Owen’s ‘use of assonantal rhyme’ brings to ‘Insensibility’ the ‘formal control’ that his subject-matter requires without ‘the inappropriate chime of rhyme’; this is because the 39 recurrences are only vaguely of sound and very rarely of accent. In Stanza III, Owen’s concern is with his own men’s lack of concern for their ‘dying’ comrades; his rhymes express this attitude to casualties with an appropriate casualness.
In Stanza IV, Owen’s fourth category of ‘happy’ soldier comprises those who are still at ‘home’, presumably awaiting the send-off. This ‘lad’ is ‘happy’ because he remains blithely unaware of the unquietness on the Western Front; he is insensible to ‘the cess of war’ because he has not yet had any experience of it. Nor can he even begin to envisage what goes on. Because his mind ‘was never trained’, because he is uneducated, he goes about his military training ‘with not a notion’
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack
And many sighs are drained.
No lines better express Owen’s pre-occupation with the ubiquity of human suffering for which the Great War is responsible. For a lad going through the routine of training at an upland camp, one day is much like another (‘worth forgetting’); oblivious to the fate of his brothers in arms, he ‘sings along the march’. By contrast, Owen and his men in France ‘march taciturn’; they do not feel like singing; silent, they trudge through sludge, ‘blood-shod’. Owen’s trained men march ‘forlorn’: that is, without hope (of surviving). This is ‘because of dusk’; they know [= are not insensible] that they are moving inexorably towards both a literal and a metaphorical night (‘huger night’).
In Stanza V, Owen concentrates his attention on the body of a single casualty. In this stanza, his perspective is that of the ‘wise’ officer. He begins with a rhetorical question: how else, he asks, should an educated man view his role in this conflict
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Being imaginative, capable of empathy, Owen puts himself in the place of the dead man. This is where the casualness of his rhyming (eyes/his) becomes eloquent in the expression of his contempt for the jingoistic generals in England who, blindly committed to this war of attrition, do not care to put themselves in his place. This is where the ‘wise’ poet, who is not insensible to the fate of the single soldier, carries out an assessment of his worth in the blimpish voice of one such general:
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
The general’s perception is of a creature suspended between living and ‘dying’; by means of syntactical parallelism, he balances the adjectives ‘vital’ and ‘mortal’ against each other, thereby suggesting that the tommy is hardly more valuable ‘alive’ than dead. For the general, the ironic beauty of the doomed youth is that, being mortally wounded, he does not strike attitudes: he is neither ‘sad nor proud’ nor troubled by intellectual curiosity (of the kind that might question the wisdom of his deployment). In fact, the doomed youth is as placid as an old man. The free indirect speech enables Owen to adopt a dual perspective: from the general’s point of view, the placid/insensible soldier is dispensable; from the poet’s point of view, the soldier might be grateful for his ‘placidity’ [= his relative ‘insensibility’] for it inures him, not only against further shell-shock, but also against the greater ‘insensibility’ of his superiors, safe in London.
In Stanza VI, Owen’s final category consists of men who are neither ‘happy’ nor ‘wise’, but ‘cursed’; his epithet for them is the ‘dullards whom no cannon stuns’. These are the armchair-generals (the ‘donkeys’) who are themselves in no danger of becoming cannon-fodder. Theirs is an altogether different kind of ‘insensibility’: an insensibility to the suffering of the troops abroad and their bereaved families at home. Owen’s indictment of them –
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
- is not only for failing to show ‘pity’, but also for lacking humanity itself. Other men whom Owen has examined in this poem become ‘immune’ to human suffering in the course of their shocking experiences; by distinct contrast, these ‘dullards’ choose to remain ‘immune’. War-mongers, they are depicted as being without the capacity to feel compassion for their fellow men. They lack
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores:
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
By means of three noun-clauses, Owen seeks to define the human instinct in which the masters of this war are plainly deficient; his three whatever-clauses are no less powerful for being perfectly iambic in movement and endorsed by a shared rhyme-sound. In this final stanza, ‘insensibility’ consists of an immunity to fellow feeling, an inability to reciprocate: to be precise, a stony and ‘wretched’ inability to share with one’s fellow man in the showing of pity/in the shedding ‘of tears’.
Editor’s Note: These are two of the nine commentaries which comprise Peter Cash’s Bookmark No. 66: Wilfred Owen.
The Sentry - Language, tone and structure
Language in The Sentry
Assonance and onomatopoeia
In The Sentry Owen concentrates on making us share the trauma of the trenches through his use of sound. Throughout the poem there is a trail of assonating words employing the dull, short ‘uh’ sound, such as ‘guttering’ l.4, ‘slush’ l.5, ‘buffeting’ and ‘snuffing’ l.13, ‘muck’ l.15, ‘mud’ and ‘ruck’ l.17, with their close neighbours, ‘murk’ l.7, ‘curse’ l.9 and ‘herded’ l.11. This sound is reiterated by the high proportion of onomatopoeic words such as ‘burst’ l.3, ‘thud! flump! thud!’ and ‘thumping’ l.13, ‘crumps / Pummelled’ l.34-5 - all of these convey the muffled sounds of explosions and falling in the confined space underground.
There is little security offered from the wilder noises above ground – the ‘blast / Of whizz-bangs’ l.11-12, which ‘hammered’ l.3 through the ‘shrieking’ l.27 air. The whizz bang was the onomatopoeic name the soldiers gave to most German shells. The horror lay in the fact that it flew (whizzed) faster than the speed of sound and so the bang to warn men to shield themselves was delayed. The effect of its impact is transmuted into the crashing fall of the sentry’s body and the noises of human suffering: ‘whined’ l.18, ‘sobbed’ l.23, ‘spewed’ l.28, ‘moans’ l.32 and ‘wild chattering’ l.33. The aural assault that engulfs Owen and his men is summed up the alliterative phrase, ‘dense din’ l.36.
In The Sentry Owen chooses words to reflect the horror of the dug-out and the experience he and his men share. For Owen, who had a life-long dislike of confined spaces, it is ‘hell’ l.2. His sense of claustrophobia is conveyed by the tide of ‘slime’ l.4 ‘rising hour by hour’ which, already ‘waist high’ l.5, ‘Choked up’ l.6 the only escape route and later deluged Owen. The alliteration of ‘slime’ and ‘slush’ as well as the repeated ‘ruck on ruck’ l.17 of ‘muck’ l.15 (associated with faeces) builds up the sense of Owen being virtually submerged by the wet clay which almost claims the lives of two others l.18,29. It leaves him ‘floundering about’ l.25 without dignity or even purpose, like the gassed, ‘drowning’ victim of Dulce et Decorum Est.
The terrible stench of the dug-out is conveyed by ‘murk’, ‘stank old’ and ‘sour’ l.7, the ‘curse’ of previous lives cramped in terrifying conditions like animals (‘den’) l.9. Owen subtly alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which villainous Lady Macbeth declares ‘hell is murky’. The smell of hell is compounded by the cordite ‘fumes’ of explosives, one of the reminders that the instruments of death (rifles, ‘old Boche bombs’ l.17) are all around.
In the midst of this hellish vision, the prosaic machinery of war grinds on, suggested in words such as ‘sentry’ l.16, ‘posting’, ‘duty’ and ‘scout’ l.24, ‘stretcher’ l.26 and ‘other posts’ l.27.
Speech and indirect speech
Part of the humanity and reality of The Sentry lies in the way in which Owen uses both direct and indirect speech to write about his interaction with the men. Owen gives us the terrified, child-like cry of the sentry: ‘O sir, my eyes -- I'm blind -- I'm blind, I’m blind!’ l.19 as the realisation of his situation hits him. Owen is suddenly a father-figure ‘Coaxing’ l.20 an infant who despairingly sobs ‘I can’t’ l.23. Owen’s reply is intended to soothe the vulnerable sentry, the distance of calm authority created by the use of reported speech:
if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he'd get all right.
The busy-ness of war makes Owen retreat even further from the piteous position of the victim as he reports himself ‘posting Next for duty and sending a scout’ l.25, the present continuousverbs indicating the wider demands of battle.
As if to overcome the gulf widening between the active and the injured, and reassert his maturity, rather than dependence, the sentry insists in direct speech again: ‘I see your lights’ l.37. That there were in fact no lights to be seen makes this a literal ‘cry in the dark’ and emphasises his vulnerability even more, evoking the reader’s pity.
Owen gives us his own perspective in The Sentry. We hear his tone of fear at the time in phrases such as ‘shell after frantic shell / Hammered’ l.2-3 and the horror of the situation in later nightmares: ‘Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids / Watch my dreams still;’ l.23-4. In the face of this sleeping ‘dread’ l.31, Owen has to somewhat distance himself from the gory details of the situation, allowing himself only selective memories (‘hark back for one word only’ l.31, just as, at the time, he had to get on with his duties as an officer rather than stay with the wounded sentry.
Investigating language and tone in The Sentry
- In The Sentry we hear the actual words of the wounded man but only the indirect speech of the officer/Owen. What is the impact on you as the reader of hearing the sentry’s actual words in the poem?
- Remind yourself of the poem The Dead-Beat which also contains dialogue and look again at The Letter. What do these and The Sentry have in common in terms of Owen’s use of language?
- What have these three poems in common in terms of the tone Owen adopts?
Structure of The Sentry
The Sentry is an account of a single event, the effect on the man involved and on his comrades. Over 37 lines Owen writes a report of the setting, the events and the outcomes. In two stanzas of uneven length Owen portrays the drama of the whizz-bang attack, the man’s blinding and his false hope. The first stanza is divided after line 10 by an ellipse where Owen moves the reader from the scene he has established in the dug-out to the action and consequent horror of the attack.
Unusually for Owen’s later poems, The Sentry is written almost entirely in full rhyme, almost as if he did not wish anything to get in the way of action of the story. ‘Knew’ l.1 rhymes with ‘through’ l.3 in a conventional manner and this pattern dominates. Some lines have internal rhyme, as when Owen adds to the intensity of bombardment in l.2 (‘hell .. shell .. shell’) and l.14 (‘thud! flump! .. thumping’). The only pararhyme is the dissonant connection between ‘spewed’ and ‘good’ l.28-9.
There are occasional rhyming couplets such as at the changing point in stanza one where the scene setting ends with: ‘The smell of men’ l.8 left ‘in the den’ l.9 and the action begins with ‘the blast’ l.11 which broke through ‘at last’ l.12. The poem ends with a final rhyming couplet: the ‘shout’ of the man with all its false hope of ‘I see your lights’ l.36 is countered by the grim reality of the fact that those lights had ‘long gone out’ l.37.
Owen chooses to use a regular iambic pentameter to narrate the events for much of The Sentry, so it is notable when he breaks it. The inverted feet of ‘Hammered’ l.3, ‘Buffeting’ l.13, ‘Pummelled’ l.35 and spondee of ‘Rainguttering’ l.4 evokes the intensity of the bombardment. The seven heavy beats of ‘And thud! flump! thud! down the steepsteps came thumping’ l.14 convey the deadweight of a falling body. The jolty nerves of the terrified sentry are communicated by the extra syllable and mixed metres of ‘And the wild / chattering / of his bro / ken teeth’ l.33. In line nine the additional syllables draw our attention to the length of time the dug-out has been occupied and to the effect of that long occupation.
Investigating structure and versification in The Sentry
- The Sentry is unusual in that Owen generally uses a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm. How do you respond to this more predictable style of poetry?
- How does it compare with other more irregular formats – select relevant poems for your comparison
- How effective is this regularity in helping us move through the events of the poem?
A device similar to alliteration but where the vowel sound in a word is repeated and thus emphasised ' e.g. 'burnt and purged'.
A word which suggests the sound it is describing: e.g. 'crackle', 'whisper', 'cuckoo'.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
Verb form indicating continuous action now: for example: I am running, they are running
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
The device whereby words are omitted to shorten the line, on the assumption that the omitted words are understood from the context, or are referred to later.
A partial or imperfect rhyme which does not rhyme fully but uses similar rather than identical vowels
A discordant or disharmonious combination of sounds
Pairs of lines which rhyme with each other.
A line containing five metrical feet each consisting of one stressed and one unstressed syllable.
The deliberate reversal of a metrical foot in a line of poetry.
A unit of metre, being a foot of two long, or stressed, syllables.