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Analysis of Poem "Insensibility" by Wilfred Owen

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

'Insensibility' Poem Summary

'Insensibility' is a complex poem written by Owen in response to the slaughter of troops he witnessed as an officer in the field during the first world war.

It could also be seen as a counterweight to an earlier poem by William Wordsworth - 'Character of the Happy Warrior', from 1807. Owen's warriors are anything but happy as the reality of war hits home.

These feelings of horror and injustice and anger had been building up over time. Here is an extract from a letter he sent to his mother, Susan Owen, in 1917, in which he describes the battlefield before him:

'Everything is unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unbearable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious but to sit with them all day, all night....and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there in motionless groups, that is what saps the soldierly spirit.'

This is a truly detailed and revealing letter that shows Owen the officer as a dealer in complete reality. For him to be able to describe such atrocities shows that he had already to an extent become 'immune' to the deaths of his fellow fighters.

But he was well aware of his dual role in this most terrible of wars. First and foremost he was there to serve with and lead his men; secondly, he wanted to record through poetry the pity of war, as someone pleading for sanity and compassion.

  • The brutal, harsh and horrific truths in his poems are what separate Wilfred Owen from many other war poets. Shell shock, combat stress and other battle-induced psychological trauma are making headline news nowadays. This poem is all about the pain of war and how soldiers adapt in order to overcome it.

Insensibility also has an unusual form - six stanzas of varied line which some think is an ode - and some notable slant or para-rhymes throughout. Written probably between October 1917 and March 1918, it was published in the posthumous 1920 book, Poems.



Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers.
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

Analysis of the Poem

'Insensibility' is Owen's longest poem at 59 lines ordered into six stanzas of varying length - eleven lines, seven, twelve, nine, ten and finally ten lines. They are numbered 1-6 in Roman numerals, a reflection of the classical mode.

This poem has no obvious full rhyme scheme and no clear foundation of metre (meter in American English), but there is a mix of iambic pentameter now and again, as if a distant echo of the steady marching rhythm of the men as they go to or from the battlefield.

For example, this line is pure iambic pentameter:

How some / where, eve / ry dawn, / some men / attack, (stanza 4)

So is this a free verse poem? There are arguments for and against. Perhaps the important point to note is that the poet is experimenting with form, lineation, rhythm and rhyme - a quick glance shows that most of the end words in each stanza are para-rhymed, that is they have close vowel and consonant rhymes - for example in the last stanza - immune/mean and shores/shares.

The six separate stanzas represent the six categories or types of insensibility, although some argue for three categories: the happy, the wise and the cursed.

Line by Line Analysis

Lines 1 - 5

The well-known if dark opening line is regular enough in rhythm but comes as a shock to the reader. How can a man possibly be happy if he is about to be killed? Yes, he is indifferent to death, even his own, if the blood in his veins is already cold.

To survive the horrors of war, a soldier has to lack warmth and feeling and compassion, become a ruthless killing machine. The speaker is suggesting that soldiers are at their happiest when compassion is absent, when they turn into robots effectively. Fleer means to laugh mockingly.

Neither do their feet get sore on the cobbles - this image is rather gruesome as the cobbles are the actual skulls of previously dead soldiers, brothers in arms, likened to stone cobbles for making roads and alleys. (Note this sentence in a letter Owen wrote to his sister in March 1918 'They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel, which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls.')

  • These happy men won't be affected by emotions if they remain aloof, cold, and able to jeer at compassion. A sobering thought - but the speaker is being ironic.

Lines 6 - 11

The syntax becomes more complex as this first stanza progresses. Note the use of punctuation, the stop-start clauses forced upon the reader. The front line is the line of cutting-edge action, where ground is gained or lost or held, where lives are expended.

  • The speaker uses the word wither and likens the soldiers to flowers (poppies?) which a poet might want to write about. But poetry about war might evoke only false tears, useless emotions. What good could poetry do?
  • The men are gaps for filling - gaps in the front line of men - just like today's supermarket shelves - men as commodities, once they're gone it is a simple matter of finding more replacements. Who cares? Who is bothered? Not the generals, not the officers, not society.

Lines 12 - 18

In the second stanza, the speaker reinforces the idea of the soldiers being numb, having no feelings or any way of caring whether those incoming shells will hit them or not. Although the chances of them getting hit and killed seem easier to work out because they are so dull.

The shilling they were given by their officer when they were recruited, traditionally called the King's Shilling, is now difficult to value, perhaps because it is worth nothing, or everything. What price is the life of millions?

The authorities have no idea just how many troops are being slaughtered. Estimates after the war put it at 10 million allied soldiers.

Lines 19 - 30

The third stanza is the longest at twelve lines and introduces the unusual idea that war saps the creative mind - imagination - and that a soldier is happier for it. In fact, so heavy can the imagination become there's no energy left to carry ammunition and pack.

Even old wounds have no influence on them and the sight of blood will not affect them ever again - they won't be capable of connecting the colour red to anything, being saturated in pain already.

First-hand experience of war and the shock of death means the heart is small-drawn long-term, that is, soldiers become impoverished emotionally and imaginatively. The longer they survive in the heat of battle the less they're able to care.

  • Note the word ironed which takes the reader back to a domestic scene. And there is also the memorable line 28: Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle - strongly alliterative.

Despite or because of the prolonged turmoil of the battlefield these men are able to laugh even as others die around them. This is how they cope with an impossible situation.

Owen is being ironic again and making a mockery of the beatitudes found in the New Testament (Matthew) where Christ addresses a large crowd.

Lines 31 - 39 (Stanza IV)

Iambic pentameter dominates certain lines in this stanza, the steady beat suggestive of marching soldiers. And the only full rhyme occurs: drained/trained, to further reinforce the notion of routine. But the happy soldier is one who is home, oblivious to the fact that others are still being killed in some far-flung foreign land.

Better not to have gone through military training, those long hours of tedium, the brainwashing. But the lad is singing a song as he marches (as many of the men did) whilst the more experienced are quiet, saying nothing. This is the march of many towards the huger night, the all-consuming darkness about to descend on those who will die.

Lines 40 - 49 (Stanza V)

We wise....that is, the poets, those who have the ability to see the bigger picture, those with vision and expression, dirty their own souls by thinking. The speaker is saying that even with just one thought, one poetic word, their bloody souls are unclean. (besmirch - to dirty)

  • If that is the case then how should the poet react in a time of war? What is to be done poetically when men are dying in such numbers, men who lack poetic vision? Poets have to become mouthpieces, poets have to record events and make known their feelings, through the blunt and lashless eyes of the lads, the uneducated soldiers.

There is no definitive answer to this most important question, one which should be asked of all wars and violent episodes - What do artists (poets) do when humans want to kill each other in wars?

  • Note the shorter lines in this stanza which produce uncertainty and pauses for the reader; surely the speaker is implying that the soldiers are running out of things to say and feel because they are isolated.
  • Is this Owen being judgemental? It could be argued that he is comparing them to old men, who are now undisturbed and peaceful?

Lines 50 - 59 (Stanza VI)

The final stanza concentrates on those dullards, those civilians and senior army staff who are not at the forefront of battle but who are nevertheless spoken of as wretched and incapable of pity. They are turned to stone.

The tone above all is one of simmering contempt for those who instigated and prolonged the war - the military high command, the politicians, the religious leaders and ultimately the people of England. The speaker is suggesting that this was a conscious choice, to ignore the sufferings of the infantrymen as they fought and died.

  • Note the reference to the last sea, a classical image of a final journey across water (the English Channel in reality; perhaps the ferry ride with Charon in Greek mythology). Hapless means unfortunate - the fate of the men.

The dimetric penultimate line leads into an elegiac last line which contains an echo of the 'tearful fooling' of poets in the first stanza. But there is also a mystery within the last stanza and it is bound up with the simple pronoun whatever, which is repeated three times.

The dullards are immune to whatever moans in man, whatever mourns and whatever shares - physical, emotional and spiritual - combined into the human soul which is always capable of compassion, but which is never on true display when war rages on.


The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey