In The Last Laugh, Wilfred Owen explores the sudden death of three soldiers, who, when dying, invoked their loved ones or religion in a bid to feel closer. It is plain that this poem in particular is built out of Owen’s experiences in the trenches themselves, and one wonders whether or not these were things that he had heard before, and immortalized in his poetry in order to give voice to the dead thousands of soldiers that lost their lives in shell holes.
It is an awfully desolate spot and constantly under shell fire. This morning I was trying to get a sleep on the grass, when a shell burst in a tree, not fifty yards away, and sent a shower of leaves to the ground. Fortunately no one was hit, another burst in the same field ten minutes afterwards,
then I thought it was time to shift! So went into a barn. There are a number of dugouts around, but they are so cold, and you might get buried inside. The farm is a vile place, with a lot of stagnant water around, and a lot of German soldiers are buried here. The barn where we sleep would be improved if a shell struck the roof, and ventilated it, in our absence! As the smell inside is bad, and makes it nearly necessary to wear a respirator! The rats seem to object to our company as they often have a free fight on top of us.
— RCS Frost, 22nd May 1915.
Living in the trenches in the midst of the war, Owen was no stranger to the death that took soldiers suddenly and sharply. The trenches, often sunken, mud-mired places filthy with the dead, would often be the target of the German shelling. The better-equipped, and better-positioned, German army ran roughshod over the British soldiers.
Death thus became a daily habit for many of the soldiers in World War I, and not least for Wilfred Owen.
The Last Laugh Analysis
The phrase that Owen used to title this poem is the idiom ‘the man who has the last laugh’. It symbolizes the ultimate victory of the unnamed man over his foe, usually someone who deserves the ridicule. However, Owen characteristically takes this positive idiom and skews it into the frame of war context, thus showing that there is no man alive in World War I who has the last laugh – it is, instead, the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ (Anthem for Doomed Youth) that can claim a victory. In this war, there are no survivors.
It also draws allusions to his poem Exposure, primarily through the use of the single-focus perception. Instead of taking a broader view of war, as he did in his much-celebrated work Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen minimizes his perception to these three soldiers instead. There is nothing beyond them, and thus this focus entails that the reader is far more acutely aware of the tragedy of the war.
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.
The first stanza opens with the death of an anonymous soldier. Ripped from life, he only has time to utter ‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit’, and the second line follows with ‘whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed’, leaving it ambiguous, and up to the reader to determine. Owen was devoutly religious, of course; however, there were a great many men who lost their belief in a higher purpose in the war, and Owen himself must have doubted, at some point, that this was the purpose that God had for all of them. Putting the reference of religion into the poem shows at once how ineffectual praying has become: God cannot listen anymore. You will die alone, and you will die in vain.
By personalizing the guns and their laughter, Owen actually gives them a much stronger character than the soldiers that are dying. The dead soldier is not even given a name – however, the ‘Bullets chirped’, the ‘Machine-guns chuckled’, and the ‘Big Gun guffawed’, and the use of the capital letters and the emphasis placed on them, shows the shells of men that have been created. It is the guns who have won this war. It is the guns, therefore, who have had the last laugh – only the guns who triumph. Note, as well, the use of gleeful sounds, nearly childish sounds – chirped, chuckled, guffawed, are all words that seem ecstatic and cruel. The guns’ enjoyment is directly at odds with the horrors of the dead soldier – however, given that we focus only on their perspective, it unknowingly drags the reader into the opposite view of the war; that of pure, senseless, and violent destruction.
Another sighed,—‘O Mother,—mother,—Dad!’
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
And the splinters spat, and tittered.
The second stanza takes a different soldier – one who calls out to his family at the moment of his death, to no avail. ‘Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead’, shows the return of innocence for the dead soldier – though it is ironic that the soldiers are smiling at the moments of their death, and also the use of the word ‘childlike’ shows, ironically, how much soldiers have been debased. They return to purity only when the guns take them away from the indignity and the anger of the war.
Here, the war-machine takes a far more contemptuous view of the death of the soldier. The terms ‘lofty shrapnel-cloud’ elevates it above the muck-diving soldier, and the ‘splinters spat, and tittered’ shows the ultimate mockery of the war-machine, and man’s attempt to understand the war. This can also be taken as a larger expression on the futility of understanding the war itself.
‘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 final stanza follows yet another soldier. This one, dying, calls out to his lover, but it is to no avail; she is far from home, and she is not hearing him. The irony of the dying soldier falling down to kiss the ground, rather than his lover, shows at once the loneliness of their deaths: far from home, they die in fields alone and in pain, with only the background music of the war to keep them company – a war that seems to be mocking their heartfelt cries. Notice the complete lack of emotion on behalf of the war-machine. One wonders whether Owen personified certain members of the British army into his war-machine, being that they were the ultimate symbols of pushing men to their deaths.
The Last Laugh was originally titled ‘Last Words’, and is dated February 1918, from a poem that Owen sent to his mother.