‘The Next War’ was written in 1917 in the midst of the First World War. Owen, who served, was being treated in the hospital for what was then known as “shell shock”. It is more commonly known today as PTSD.
A reader should also take note of the epigraph before beginning this piece. Owen chose to quote fellow war-poet Siegfried Sassoon before beginning the first quatrain of ‘The Next War’. The quote reads:
War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
These two lines come from Sassoon’s poem ‘A Letter Home’. In this poem the speaker confidently describes war as something separate from his, and his intended listener’s, experience. Hope and new life, he believes, are going to triumph.
The unnamed speaker in this piece describes in the first lines of the poem that he and his comrades have become “friendly” with death. They have lived around him for so long that his presence has lost its impact. Everyone is used to “him” by now. Death is described with poignant and disturbing imagery that leads the reader into the second half of the poem. There, the speaker describes how death is not the true enemy that the soldiers face on the battlefield. He was their fellow comrade more than anything else. The last lines allude to the endless nature of war and the “flags” that soldiers fight for and against.
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‘The Next War’ by Wilfred Owen is a fourteen-line sonnet that is separated into one set of eight lines, known as an octet, and one set of six, known as a sestet. This first half of the poem follows the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, ABBAABBA. The following lines are closer to a Shakespearean sonnet in that they follow an ABAB rhyme scheme and conclude with a couplet. Owen also chose to make use of the metrical pattern that is associated with traditional sonnets, iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. It sounds something line du-DUM du-DUM.
Owen makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Next War’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and allusion. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example “laughed” and “leagued” in line two of the second stanza. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, there are good examples throughout the poem that allude to the complexities of war, the mindset of a soldier, and to the higher interests that control the lives of men like this poet when they are on the battlefield.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It is one of the most obvious techniques at work in this poem, seen through the depiction of “Death” as someone that soldiers can come to know as a person and interact with.
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
In the first four lines of ‘The Next War,’ the speaker begins by referring vaguely to “Out there”. This is an allusion to the vagaries of the battlefield, especially those of the First World War of which Owen was a part. When he, and his fellow soldiers, were “Out there” they become “friendly” with “Death”. Owen uses personification to describe “Death” as someone that you can spend time with, talk to, and even become friends with. This is a common and useful technique in poetry.
In the next lines, the speaker describes simply and directly how as a soldier he spent time with death and began overtime to treat his presence as normal. In the larger context of this poem, this description of death is quite evocative and successful. It is clear that the poet, who is also a soldier, grew so used to the terror of death that “his” presents lost its power. The speaker goes on to describe how the soldiers forgave death and even smelled his “Breath“. It was “green” and “thick”.
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
The final line of the first quatrain leads into the fifth of ‘The Next War’ which reveals that the thick green breath of death was in fact poison gas, a common occurrence on the battlefield. This is seen through the simple statement “our eyes wept“. But, despite this, the soldiers did not “writhe”. They stood strong in the face of death and stood up to the bullets and shrapnel that he spat at them. They continued on the best they could with their lives as death came at them and every form imaginable. In the eighth line, Owen uses the word “scythe”, an allusion to the commonly recognized image of the Grim Reaper.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.
In the second stanza of ‘The Next War’ which is made up of six lines the poet transitions into the rhyme scheme and structure that is commonly associated with a Shakespearean sonnet. The speaker addresses the reader, telling them that “death was never “their enemy. He was not the force against which they were fighting. He was there, as a result of the war that they were forced to participate in. It was a flag they were fighting for and a flag they were fighting against. Owen uses the phrase “old chum“ to describe death colloquially. This allows the reader to envision the kind of comradeship that the speaker and his fellow soldiers experienced as they suffered and feared together.
In the fourth line of this stanza of ‘The Next War,’ the speaker alludes to the future that he knows will be filled with countless other wars. There’s no doubt in his mind that more soldiers will come and experience the same things that he experienced on the battlefield. “Better men would come,/ and greater wars“. In that future, there will be some soldiers who will brag that they fought against death to save the lives of those they love but, the speaker knows differently. In reality, the soldiers are only fighting for interests beyond their reach, and for institutions, they have no real controlling interest in.