‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen, an anti-war poem, portrays how a group of soldiers embraced the cold breast of death having no way out. Whereas, some of them managed to escape the death-route. The title of the poem, ‘Spring Offensive’ is a reference to the Kaiser’s Battle of 1918. The consecutive attacks of Germans on the Western Front during the First World War are collectively called Spring Offensive. Here, “offensive” means a “military attack”. From the title, it becomes clear Wilfred Owen presents an episode of Spring Offensive in this poem. Moreover, the use of imagery and symbolism in the poem help readers to imagine what happened on the actual battlefield.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen presents a group of soldiers alertly waiting near a ridge. Some of them were so exhausted that they couldn’t even stand on their feet. Moreover, the natural setting of Spring and in contrast the soldiers’ fear about their approaching death anytime, brings out a paradoxical image in the poem. Apart from that, the valley behind the soldiers and the flowers around them, remind them of the beauty of life and the futility of war. However, after the arrival of the enemy soldiers, they started running to save their lives. Some of them got killed by bullets and some others fell from the cliff. It’s not that all of them were killed. Some soldiers who managed to fight back and defeated their opponents, came back glorious to the “peaceful air” of their country.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen consists of five stanzas. The line count of each stanza of the poem isn’t regular. Some stanzas contain 14 lines. Whereas, some have only 4 to 6 lines. The poet uses the regular rhyme scheme in the poem. However, some of the lines don’t rhyme at all. As an example, in the first stanza, only the second and third lines rhyme together and the rest of the lines don’t rhyme. The second stanza, depicting the natural setting, contains several rhyming lines. This section reflects a sense of harmony that exists in nature. In the third stanza, the harmony of the poem breaks a bit. In the following stanzas, the rhyming breaks often when the poet refers to the scenes of war.
Moreover, the majority of the lines in the poem contain ten syllables. The overall poem is composed of both the iambic and trochaic meter. The rising and falling rhythm in each line depicts the mental state of the soldiers.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen describes the activities of the soldiers from an omniscient point-of-view. The poet appears as an overlooker of the scene and he describes how they suffered on the battlefield. His tone is direct and emotive. The ironic tone in the lines, “Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world” and “But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands”, reflects the poet’s disgust about the war. In the poem, his tone changes with the ideas of the lines. Likewise, in the beginning, his tone is calm and easy-going. As the poem progresses, his tone changes and reflects the tone of a soldier who suffered in the actual place of action. In the end, the poet’s tone becomes stern and his mood reflects he demands an answer anyhow from those who were responsible for the battles fought during World War I.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen contains numerous literary devices that make the poet’s description of the soldiers more compelling to the readers. Likewise, in the first stanza, there is a metaphor in the “last hill”. The poet also uses polysyndeton in this stanza. The second stanza contains several metaphors such as “black sky”, “end of the world”, and “sky’s mysterious glass”. There is a personification in the phrase “May breeze”. Moreover, the poet uses onomatopoeia in the usage of the word, “murmurous”. There is a simile in the second stanza too. It is present in this line, “Like the injected drug for their bone’s pains”. In the third stanza, there is a metonymy in the usage of the word “gold”. Apart from that, there is a biblical allusion in the fourth stanza of the poem.
Moreover, there is a paradox in the line, “But what say such from existence’ brink”. There is an oxymoron in the phrase, “superhuman inhumanities” and an antithesis in the following line, “Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—” In the last line, there is a rhetorical question. It is also an example of irony.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen contains the themes of the horror of war, death, suffering, glory, and mental unrest. The most important theme of the poem is the horror of war. In this poem, the poet by describing the condition of the soldiers talks about the horrific nature of war as a whole. How war plays with the lives of the soldiers and makes them suffer as if their lives had no value, are the major concerns of the poem. The theme of death is present throughout the poem. By using prolepsis or anticipation at the very first line, “Halted against the shade of a last hill”, the poet refers that death always lurks above a soldier’s fate. Moreover, the theme of suffering in war is also there in the poem. The description of the battle and how the soldiers died in that event, collectively present the theme of suffering.
Apart from that, the poet uses the theme of glory to satirize the attitude of those who support the cause of war. Those nationalistic men glorify the soldiers who have survived the war but never talk about those who died. Moreover, the diction of the poem depicts the mental unrest of the poet along with the soldiers who fought in World War I.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen begins abruptly and briefly, reflecting the short time the soldiers can rest amidst a war. The first stanza presents an image of a hill. Metaphorically, it is the “last hill” of their lives. As the soldiers didn’t know they would survive or not. After a long time, they had eaten something. Feeling safe in that place, they slept carelessly. Here, the phrase, “comfortable chest and knees” contains a synecdoche.
But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen, at the beginning of the second stanza, describes what other soldiers did while the rest of the group rested near the hill. They knew enemies were approaching anytime. For this reason, some of them stood up and kept a look around for their safety. Here, the “sky” is a metaphor for a soldier’s fate. Moreover, the description of the sky contains a pathetic fallacy. It appears as if the sky is in a similar condition to that of the soldiers.
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
In this section of ‘Spring Offensive’, Wilfred Owen describes the natural setting of the surroundings. May, being the month of late Spring, decorated the landscape with long grass that swirled by the breeze. Moreover, the auditory imagery present in “murmurous with wasp and midge”, helps readers to imagine how the surrounding looked like.
However, in the soothing images of Spring, suddenly the sensation of war comes into the poem in the last line of this section. The warmth of Spring oozed their veins and it reminded them of the reaction of the drugs injected in their veins to lessen their bones’ pain.
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.
‘Spring Offensive by Wilfred Owen presents the impact of war on the soldiers’ body and mind in the last two lines of the second stanza. Here, by referring to the “imminent line of grass” the poet anticipates the soldiers’ death. Moreover, the reference to the sky as a “mysterious glass” presents an image of hopelessness. It also acts as a symbol of imminent danger.
Hour after hour they ponder the warm field—
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen describes the natural setting again in the third stanza. In the first three lines, the poet presents the mental state of the soldiers. They knew that the enemy soldiers were coming anytime and the battle would begin. At this juncture, they thought about their existence by meditating upon the “warm field”. In this phrase, the poet uses a metonymy. Moreover, the valleys behind them and buttercups blooming there showed them the beauty of life. Here, the poet uses a personification. They saw this beautiful valley before coming up to the hill.
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.
In this section, the poet uses pathetic fallacy in the description of the brambles. The personified brambles knew that the “slow boots” or the soldiers wouldn’t yield to their request. Still, they pleaded to them not to go to the war. They clung to them as if they had hands. By using the metaphor of “sorrowing hands” the poet refers to the family members of the soldiers.
However, in the last line of this section, the poet compares them to trees. It appears to the poet they were immovable and couldn’t be distracted from their futile purpose. The image of the tree also refers to the soldiers’ internal roughness and emotionless hearts.
Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste—
In this section, the poet depicts how the soldiers got themselves ready before the war. Here, the poet makes a comparison between the war and “a cold gust”. In both cases, men guard their bodies to protect themselves. But, in the soldiers’ case, they even guarded their souls, ironically.
Apart from that, the poet presents a realistic image of modern warfare. Here, heroism doesn’t count, victory matters the most. That’s why it’s unprofitable to alarm one’s enemies with the bugle call, high flags, or clamorous sounds. However, the repetition of the word “no” in this section emphasizes the ideas present in this line.
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,—
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.
Here, Wilfred Owen illustrates how the war begins in a soldier’s mind. Then it happens in reality. Moreover, the eyes of the soldiers had a blank look. There was a flare in their eyes for the battle that was approaching nearer. Apart from that, they had broken up all the beautiful things of nature. For them, only death mattered the most. That’s why they smiled against the sun. The use of the word, “smile” is ambiguous here. It might be a reference to their fearless state of mind. Or, they might have smiled at their collective fate.
At last, the poet says, they had broken the “bounty” with the sun or nature. For this reason, they stood on the side of death and destruction.
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen describes the battle’s beginning in the fourth stanza. By using, enjambment in this section, the poet fast forwards the flow of the poem. Moreover, the poet uses alliteration in “So, soon”, “they topped”, “herb and heather”, “soft sudden”, and “Chasmed and steepened”.
However, the immobility of the previous stanzas fades away in this section and starts the beats of war. As the battle had just begun, the natural setting became tumultuous. Moreover, the lines, “soft sudden cups/ Opened in thousands for their blood”, refer to the fierceness of war. This eucharist imagery also refers to the soldiers sacrificing their lives for the sake of their country. The last line acts as a symbol of death.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen continues to present a chain of images of the battle. The internal movement of the previous stanza continues here too. Likewise, the poet talks about those who were running on the hill in the fourth stanza at the beginning of this section. The swift and unseen bullets had taken their lives away. The “hot blast” killed some others. The whole setting turned into a “fury of hell’s upsurge” as if hell had moved up from the underground.
Some soldiers plunged off the ridge in fear. Here, the “world’s verge” contains hyperbole. Through this phrase, the poet anticipates how the world is going to end, not by a “bang” but by the “sigh” of the soldiers.
At last, the poet ironically says, “Some say God caught them even before they fell”. Here, the poet exemplifies how spiritual leaders lied to people about reality.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
In the first two lines of this section, the poet again criticizes those men who lied about the suffering of soldiers. There was none while they were falling off the cliff. Only, the soldiers who were fighting there saw their plight.
In the next few lines, the poet refers to those who entered the “hell”, metaphorically the battlefield, to fight back. They showed “superhuman” powers to “out-fiend” their enemies. In the phrase, “superhuman inhumanities”, there is a reference to the brutality and ruthlessness of the soldiers.
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?
In the last four lines of ‘Spring Offensive’, Wilfred Owen portrays how the world glorified them who managed to return victorious. Their “Long-famous glories” alongside brought “immemorial shames” to the conscience. They crawled back to their lives and regained the “cool” and “peaceful air” of their country. But, what pains the poet the most, is the attitude of his countrymen toward the dead soldiers. They didn’t feel it necessary to glorify their lives who “went under”.
‘Spring Offensive’ by Wilfred Owen talks about the Kaiser’s Battle of 1918. It is also known as Spring Offensive or Ludendorff Offensive. Moreover, the Spring Offensive was a series of German attacks along the Western Front during World War I. It began on 21 March 1918 and lasted till 18 July 1918. At the end of the Spring Offensive, the Germans lost and the Allies became victorious. In this poem, having the same title, Wilfred Owen depicts a scene in which Germans attacked the soldiers of the Allied forces. The restlessness and the furious movement of the poem, give a clear idea about the real offensives.
Like ‘Spring Offensive’, one of the best anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, here is a list of a few poems that present the horror and pity of war.
- War Photographer By Carol Ann Duffy – In this one of her best poems, Carol Ann Duffy describes how a war photographer mentally suffers after seeing the terrifying images of war.
- MCMXIV by Philip Larkin – In this one of his famous poems, Philip Larkin muses on a lineup of soldiers as seen in a photo.
- Attack by Siegfried Sassoon – In this anti-war poem, Siegfried Sassoon describes a military offensive and the situation of the soldiers.
- Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen – Wilfred Owen, like his other anti-war poems such as ‘Futility’, ‘Insensibility’, ‘The Last Laugh’, and ‘The Next War’, talks about the futility and meaninglessness of war in this poem.