Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
- The repetition of a frantic cry, "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—" draws us straight into a frenzy of action.
- We're in the midst of an "ecstasy" of fumbling for helmets and gas masks.
- (If you're wondering just how nasty and terrifying gas attacks were, check out some of the historical links in our "Websites" section. Believe us, on a nastiness scale of 1 to 10, we put gas attacks at 10.5.)
- Does the word "ecstasy" seem strange here? It does to us.
- We're guessing that Owen's trying to draw upon an apocalyptic language: at the end of the world, just about anything that you're doing will probably seem ecstatic.
- The "ecstasy of fumbling" which goes on here, however, is anything but rapturous.
- We're back to the sort of ironic language that we've seen in the title – combining elevated language with absolute chaos makes the whole experience seem totally out of proportion.
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
- The eeriness of this line might have something to do with the fact that we don't know who the "someone" stumbling about in the night actually is.
- Notice how the verbs here have changed: our speaker's no longer describing universal conditions that could apply to anyone.
- He's in the moment, watching as a man is "stumbling" and "yelling" and "floundering."
- Those "–ing" conjugations of verbs create a sense of immediacy.
- The man's out there right now. His actions occur as we speak.
- As we say in our "Quotes" section, lime, or quicklime, is a chemical compound that can burn through the human body (sort of like fire).
- In other words, whatever the gas is doing to that man out there, it's awful.
- It's so awful that our speaker can't face it head-on: he has to describe it through similes, (like those similes we talked about in the first lines).
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
- The repetition of the word "green" here allows our sense of the scene to fold in upon itself, almost as if the fog of green stuff is surrounding us as well.
- The long "ee"s of green lengthen the time it takes us to read the lines, slowing our tongues down slightly.
- It's like those scenes in horror movies that suddenly shift into slow motion: what's going on here is so awful that we have to pause in order to take it all in.