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In 1915, the 22-year-old Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British army. NBD, right?
Not so much. Like many young boys, both in England and other countries on the eve of World War I, Owen had no idea what was in store for him. At first, he was optimistic, and entertained all the illusions of grandeur that a young, sprightly thing is supposed to entertain. Plus he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing for his country. All that feel-good feeling good lasted… not at all. Once he got into combat, and saw what was really going down, Owen knew that he had walked straight into the depths of Hell.
To put it mildly, World War I was a terrible, terrible conflict. New, more terrible killing methods (gas and machine guns chief among them) had been developed by the time of the war's outbreak (1914). Nearly 10 million soldiers died, another 20 million were wounded, and still another 7 or 8 million went missing altogether. Owen himself experienced two harrowing brushes with death: at one point, he was blown into the air by an artillery fragment and landed in a pile of human remains. At another point, he got trapped in an old German trench. These events so scarred him that he was given medical leave for shell shock.
During his medical leave Owen met the now-famous poet Siegfried Sassoon, which was kind of a big deal. Under Sassoon's influence, Owen's poetry took a turn for the dark and the bleak, and as the war went on, things only got darker. Sometime between 1916 and 1918, when Owen was killed (just one week before the end of the war), he wrote "Arms and the Boy," and let Shmoop tell you: you don't get much darker than this sucker.
Like most of Owen's work, it's all about the horrors of war: killing, blood, death. But this poem in particular zeroes in on the weapons of war, in this case a bayonet and bullets. In a letter to his mother, Owen remarked that the poem was about the "unnaturalness of weapons," which sounds about right. He makes the "arms and the boy" seem like total strangers to one another to show us that war, at its heart, makes, well, no sense at all. It's just plain inhuman.
War is a really terrible thing, and everybody knows it. People shoot each other, stab each other, blow each other up, destroy homes, and do just about every other horribly violent thing you can imagine. Soldiers spend a lot of time learning how to use weapons and kill their enemies, but nothing can prepare someone for the kill-or-be-killed arena of the battlefield. There's a big difference between shooting a rifle at a range, and shooting somebody who's literally looking you in the eye.
It's a sad fact that warfare turns every soldier into a killing machine of sorts, but this does not mean that soldiers are fundamentally evil. See, war destroys more than just cities and lives: it also destroys whatever innocence and humanity the soldiers have. What else could being forced to brutally kill people do?
This conundrum is just what Wilfred Owen is tackling in "Arms and the Boy." He describes the horrible violence of modern warfare, but also points out the ways in which World War I, and really all wars, turned young, unsuspecting boys into killing machines. Despite its bleak outlook, however, the poem does try to suggest that the young boys forced to fight in World War I were just pawns in a game, not cold-blooded murders but innocent people with hopes and dreams.
In the poem, the real evil is the boy's weapon—the object that does the killing. Owen describes it as if it were some type of crazy monster. In other words it is not the boy who's at fault, but his weapons, which represent the larger political forces that caused the war in the first place. In this way Owen suggests that soldiers, despite what they are forced to do in horrible situations (like the battlefield), are still living, breathing, good-hearted people who got caught in a mess that was far beyond them.
The Wilfred Owen Association Wants You
The website for the Owen Association has information about Owen's life, poems, and works written about him. One stop shopping, in other words.
It's always worth a look.
If you're looking for scoop on this common World War I condition that many suffered from, including Wilfred Owen, the BBC has your back.
The First World War Online
Everything you ever wanted to know and then some.
Poetry of the Great War
WWI may have been the pits, but it sure produced a lot of good poetry.
"Wilfred Owen" Up in Arms
Yep, it's as creepy as it sounds: this picture of Wilfred Owen is (oddly) made to look as though it is actually reading the poem.
Wilfred Owen Tableau
Here's a slide show of World War I images, along with Richard Burton reading Owen's poems.
Shell Shock Footage
This footage from World War I shows shell-shock sufferers, and it's not for the faint of heart.
Hear it Right
A British guy recites the poem.
Wilfred Owen Smiling
Here's a picture of the poet in his uniform, sporting quite a smirk.
Here's a copy in Owen's hand of "Anthem for Dead Youth" (later changed to "Anthem for Doomed Youth"). At the bottom it says "with Sassoon's amendments."
This is a picture of a U.S. soldier learning to use his bayonet. Here's hoping that blade's a fake.
World War I Trench
Yep, it's as bad as it looks. Worse, even.
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
Get 'em while they're hot. (Actually, they've been around for quite a while.)