In the lines of ‘Arms and the Boy,’ a reader can experience through Owen’s imagery his own disillusionment with war. When speaking about this poem, via a letter, to his mother, the poet said that this piece is about the “unnaturalness of weapons”. They are monstrous, as he describes in the text of ‘Arms and Boy’.They long for nothing more than total destruction.
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Themes in Arms and the Boy
The clearest themes at play in ‘Arms and the Boy’ are warfare and innocence/youth. They are seen through the contrasting stanzas that set the nature of the weapons against that of the boy who will soon have to pick them up. One is made from beginning to end to create death while the other, the young man, is not. His innocence makes the terror of the weapons all the more offensive and as Owen puts it, “unnatural”.
Summary of Arms and the Boy
In the first two stanzas of the poem, the speaker describes the weaponry which a young man is going to have to take up to fight against his prescribed enemies. The bayonet and bullets are personified. They are described as longing for flesh and as having sharp teeth that are poised to inflict horror on anyone.
The final stanza contrasts the previous in that it talks about the boy’s nature. He was not built for this destruction. He’s young and happy and there’s noting about him that’s monstrous or terrible, unlike war itself.
Structure of Arms and the Boy
‘Arms and the Boy’ by Wilfred Owen is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABB, and so on, changing end sounds. The lines are also made use of a metrical pattern known as iambic pentameter, making them heroic couplets. Iambic pentameter refers to the number of beats per line. In this case, each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.
Several of the end rhymes are imperfect, meaning that they do not completely rhyme. For example, “blade” and “blood” at the ends of lines one and two of the first stanza.
Literary Devices in Arms and the Boy
Owen makes use of several literary devices in ‘Arms and the Boy’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Blind, blunt bullet-leads” at the end of line one of the second stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the second line of the poem when the poet describes the bayonet-blade as “keen with hunger of blood” and “Blue with all malice”. This leads into a great simile: “like a madman’s flesh”.
Analysis of 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.
In the first four lines of ‘Arms and the Boy,’ the speaker begins by referring to the young man, someone who is soon to learn the ways of war. He suggests that this boy learn about and become accustomed to the feel and experience of the bayonet-blade. The poet uses personification to describe this blade as bloodthirsty. He paints a terrible image of its intent and its history. This alludes to the wider destructive nature of war and what is in store for the “boy” if he picks it up. In the last line of this stanza, there is a good example of alliteration with the phrase “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.
The second stanza begins in much the same way as the first. This time though the poet is describing the bullets and the cartridges. They too are personified. Each element of war seems to have life of its own. It’s created for no purpose other than to kill the person it is directed towards. One of the best images of the poem is in the last line of this stanza where the speaker says the cartridges “of fine zinc teeth” are “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 last stanza of ‘Arms and the Boy’ changes the direction of the poem. The poet juxtaposes the terrible armaments of the last two stanzas to the true nature of this young man. He should not be dealing with the bayonet or bullets. Rather, his teeth should be “laughing round an apple”. He is not a beast or a monster. There are no claws on his hands or “talons at his heels”. The boy should not, but likely will, be made into a creature of destruction.