Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
- The soldiers in this poem are crippled, mentally and physically overcome by the weight of their experiences in war.
- Did you notice how unwilling our speaker seems to introduce himself (and his fellow soldiers)? We're almost all the way through the second line before we (the readers) hear who "we" (the subjects of the poem) actually are.
- In fact, we get simile upon simile before we are acquainted with the subjects of this poem.
- We hear that they're "like old beggars" and "like hags."
- The speaker's searching for images that his reader can understand, as if he's convinced that none of his readers will be able to understand how horribly twisted and deformed the bodies of the soldiers have become.
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
- The battle's about to end for the day.
- The soldiers turn away from the lights and noise of war and head back in the direction of their camp.
- There's an oh-so-subtle irony in the reference to the soldiers' "distant rest" (4).
- Sure, he could be talking about the barracks to which we guess that they're headed.
- Then again, they're soldiers in a war that wiped out over nine million men. Nine million.
- The "distant rest" to which our soldiers are heading may just be death.
- Trudging through the sludge is a pretty decent description of the trench warfare that became the battle plan for much of the First World War.
- Check out our "Best of the Web" links for detailed analyses of how disgusting and awful the trenches were.
Men marched asleep.
- Owen's opting for concise realism here: there's no need to fancy up the language of the poem.
- The horror of men walking as if they were dead (out of exhaustion, we're guessing) says it all.
- By ending a sentence in the middle of line five, Owen creates a caesura (a pause in the line), a formal effect that underscores the terseness of the poem's language at this point.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
- We mentioned that these guys seem a bit otherworldly before, but we'll say it again.
- Notice how lines 5-6 collect lots of "l" sounds? Words like "lost" and "limped" and "blood" all roll on our tongues, making the experience of reading the lines seem even lllonger.
- It's all part of Owen's technical dexterity: he's trying to get us to feel how interminable the soldiers' march seems right now.
- Also notice that the blood that has been shed seems to clothe them now, (or at least their feet). This creates a vivid image suggesting that the war – figuratively and literally – is enveloping their very beings.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
- Once again, the choppiness of lines 6-7 mimics the terseness of tired men.
- The rhythm of the lines even sounds a bit like the tramp of men marching in rhythm.
- Plus the repetition of "l"s continues.
- Notice how we've moved beyond the elaborate similes at the beginning of this stanza.
- Our speaker's not worried about comparing his comrades to things that the folks at home can understand.
- Worn out by the march, he's content to speak in sweeping observations.
- All the men are rendered disabled by the traumas that they've experienced.
- Maybe this isn't exactly an accurate historical account of a soldier's life in the war.
- After all, all of the men can't be lame and blind, can they? Or…can they?
- Perhaps the "drunk" and "deaf" soldiers might be temporarily overwhelmed by the never-ending strains of battle.
- Even the shells seem "tired" and "outstripped."
- (Five-Nines are gas shells. We'll hear lots more about them later.)
- The whole war, in other words, seems worn out.