Throughout Owen’s collection of poetry, on of the running themes that we can pick up on is that of detachment and mockery of the situation, as opposed to being emotionally engaged with the subject and causing the reader to feel any empathy. The poem in the collection which is key to this idea is ‘Insensibility’, which both uses and explains the detachment which soldiers feel, and therefore makes a strong connection between itself and many more of his poems.
The very name of the poem, ‘Insensibility’, seems to me to be quite detached from feeling in itself. It is quite a formal word, and not one which is used that often, and gives a sense of being quite removed from reality. This immediately gives the reader an idea of what to expect as it seems that the soldiers are even detached from the idea that they are lacking feeling and use such a cold and emotionless word to describe the state which they are in. I also think that the connotations the word carries by being synonymous with the word for lacking sense or intelligence are important, as they also give the idea that these soldiers who have become numb to feeling have also lost the power of intelligent thought and this even further distances the reader from them, who may feel above those who are intellectually lower down than them.
This would be especially relevant to the types of people who would have read Owen’s poetry nearer the time as it would have been quite likely to have been on the more upper class end of the scale and be well educated themselves and therefore more likely to fall into the idea of the soldiers being beneath them and not worth empathy, therefore being more shocked by some of the content of the poem, specifically at the end. Several other poems also have quite detached or inappropriate seeming titles, for example ‘The Show’. This is quite an informal word from the time for the act of going ‘over the top’, and therefore removes some of the emotion as we don’t really link it to the fact that the soldiers actually just go over to die. In fact, I think that this title goes even further as a ‘show’ is something you would expect to be enjoyable whereas war is far from it, so there seems to be some sort of grim irony in using it as the title of a poem where the content is so hideous.
As well as using detachment in many of his poems, Owen uses ‘Insensibility’ in particular to explore the reasoning behind why soldiers become so isolated from their feelings during the war. To do this he uses very vivid imagery of the process which is involved in becoming insensible, especially in verse three where he brings in the idea of battle being a sort of ‘cautery’ which seals off any feelings as if they are an infection. I think that this image of ironing away feelings and the use of the word “scorching” really emphasize how much the act of being in the war just burns away any feelings, and gives the idea that it really is a painful and violent act which means that the soldiers literally cannot afford to let their emotions through. I think that because of this, even though in general the poem is quite distant, the reader does form some sort of empathy for the soldiers at this point which I think is important as they then do understand that there is no choice in the matter and they do have to be ‘happy’ with what they have as it is the only way to stay sane.
This is further backed up by his use of phrases such as “terror’s first constriction” which uses the relatively strong word “terror” to briefly connect the reader with the soldiers and the idea of constriction which is a long and drawn out word which brings about imagery of suffocation and claustrophobia, which are quite horrific ideas, and really strengthen this idea of the pain and suffering which the soldiers have gone through and how it is this which allows them not to be able to feel anything. I think that Owen’s purpose in allowing the reader to feel sympathy at this point is to enforce one of his overall messages within ‘Insensibility’, namely that the people at home cannot have the same excuse for being emotionally withdrawn from what is going on as they have not gone through any of the same sorts of emotions. I think that this has the effect of causing the reader to feel quite guilty as they remember the sympathy they have had for the soldiers in the poem and the pain they went through, and perhaps question why they aren’t more upset and emotionally involved with the horrific tragedies happening at war.
In this way, ‘Insensibility’ can be though of as quite like ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’ as this too uses a similar tactic to present its subject matter, although this is quite a different subject in this case as it is actually presenting the more positive sides of war. Like ‘Insensibility’ there is a very sudden change in the tone near the end of the poem, going from using religious and beautiful imagery to suddenly becoming very unforgiving and again making the reader feel quite guilty for their views on the war. These harsh sentences which are very blunt and to the point, for example “You are not worth their merriment” are quite similar to those used in ‘Insensibility’ such as “But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns, That they should be as stones.” From this I think that it is clear that one of Owen’s aims of presenting this insensibility in the first place definitely has the aim of making the reader feel guilty about their own lack of emotion towards the war, as well as serving the purpose of explaining the detached tone in many of the other poems in his collection.
The actual use of detachment is important in ‘Insensibility’ as well as the presenting of it, as this is one of the main techniques that Owen uses throughout his poetry to shock the audience and get across his point. In ‘Insensibility’ quite casual and blunt language is used most of the time, which makes it seem as if Owen does not really sympathise with what is going on and that he too is ‘insensible’ to emotion. This comes across quite clearly with words such as ‘fooling’ which are very trivial and do not carry any emotional connotations and can therefore have the effect of almost underwhelming the reader, perhaps allowing them also to have the feeling of being shut out from the world. Another phrase where this comes across particularly noticeably is with the phrase “but no one bothers”, which is very nihilistic but also quite mundane, not ‘bothering’ sounds like something which you would do with something trivial and unimportant rather than something as vital as a literal life or death situation.
It also makes it sound as if he is blaming the soldiers for not putting in enough effort, as in general if you don’t bother it is that you aren’t trying enough, but I think that this is meant to be quite ironic as it has the effect of shocking the reader who knows that it isn’t true, and is therefore forced to see the actual viewpoint of Owen which is that the fighting itself, no matter how hard people try, is futile. He also uses some quite harsh phrases such as claiming that those who have shut off their feelings “Can laugh amongst the dying, unconcerned”. This at first sounds very shocking to the reader as it makes the soldiers sound incredibly cold and heartless that they are able to cut off their feelings towards those who are dying. I think that this phrase is made to be particularly cold sounding by keeping the word ‘dying’ in the present tense and using the word ‘amongst’ almost make it sound as if the soldier is laughing at the deaths of the friends around them. Although this is clearly not the case it is a very powerful shock tactic and very much contrasts with the small amount of empathy we are given in the few lines before. I think that Owen has a variety of different reasons for using the idea of detachment in this way, one of which is of course to shock and confuse the reader as to what he really means, as this means that they are more likely to think about it and consider and rethink their own views, as well as making the poem have a little more impact.
I also think however, that this detachment also makes some of the poem seem quite ironic and perhaps even mocking, and this brings on a whole new set of questions as it is quite ambiguous as to where Owen is actually being serious about the importance of soldiers being insensible and where he is mocking it, and I think when you look at the poem as a whole he is almost doing both. At some points, for example where he says that “Their eyes are rid Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever” the reader can easily see that it is a good thing because the removal of some of the pain of war is very important and at this moment I think that we feel that Owen agrees, the pain does need to be shut out sometimes and here we feel the sympathy for the soldiers. However at other points, for example the use of the word ‘Happy’, the language seems a little out of place. He could have used the word ‘fortunate’ or another similar word which would still have been positive, but the idea of happiness when they are on the front lines can seem a bit forced and unnatural which would suggest that Owen is also being quite mocking of the soldiers and we are a little unsure which of his viewpoints we are meant to be agreeing with. Overall I personally think that Owen’s mockery is quite sad, and is aimed to be a sort of grim humour showing the sadness of what the situation has become. However it can also be argued that perhaps he thinks the entire idea of becoming insensible is in fact wrong, and that the entire poem is a very subtle mockery of it. I do not believe that this is the case though, as to me it seems that although he can see what is wrong with the soldiers becoming insensible, he can think of no other alternative for them and therefore is unable to protest it.
Many of the other poems also use detached language to shock the reader, an example of which is at the beginning of “Dulce and Decorum Est”. The soldiers are described as ‘old beggars’ and ‘hags’ which are very demeaning and low class words which places them far below the reader on a social scale and therefore is quite shocking, especially as back home they were put on a pedestal and made out to be heroes. Also, trivial words are used quite often such as “trudge”, “lame” and “drunk”, which again shock the reader as they are not what would traditionally be associated with the heroic image of the soldier at battle. I think that the purpose of this is similar to ‘Insensibility’ as again near the end of this poem we have that sense of guilt directed towards the reader, this time for making it seem as if war is glorious.
By presenting this completely degrading and horrific view of the soldiers it is the complete opposite of what many people have come to expect of those who are at war and therefore makes the ending even more powerful in drilling in that it is in fact a lie. I think that the poems, such as these, which use detachment in the way in which they are told are almost more effective than those which don’t as the emotion is not supplied by the poem and therefore the reader has to fill in with their own feelings which are much more real than those which a poem can give you. This is backed up by the fact that although a poem such as ‘Mental Cases’ uses very emotive language and is very involved with the soldiers, we are still left feeling quite cold after reading it. However, if you read one of the more seemingly detached and brutal poems such as Arms and the Boy, where the entire tone is one of mockery and is very harsh, I believe that you actually feel more emotion after reading them because the shock of what you are reading triggers you to provide the feelings, and therefore Owen’s point comes across far more effectively.
In ‘Insensibility’, sometimes the form of the poem also allows it to feel more detached. Owen uses many half-rhymes, but in no regular pattern, so the entire tone is caused to be quite eerie but not really emotional as there is an irregularity to it. For example the words “brothers” and “withers” are very close to each other and the fact that they don’t rhyme completely makes something sound not quite right, and makes the entire flow of the poem quite jumpy. This is also done with frequent use of enjambment and caesurae which completely break up any sense of rhythm which the poem might have otherwise had. This broken up way of speaking it means that no real emotion can come across, as this would require a smoother, more regular way of writing which is not present here.
It also gives a sense of repetitiveness which again makes the entire war seem mundane and trivial, just the same words and sounds over and over again which takes away a lot of the emotional impact. I think that Owen’s use of form in ‘Insensibility’ is very effective to the reader, especially if it is read out loud as the breaks in the rhythm and half rhymes can be heard to their best effect, making the entire poem seem disjointed and cold, and therefore again serving the purpose of shocking the reader and confusing them as to the actual purpose. Many other poems also use this, again ‘Arms and the Boy’ being similar in that it again uses half rhymes, such as “blade” and “blood” to make it awkward and disjointed as well as a lot of onomatopoeia and alliteration which gives the impression of being very twisted due to the horrific images this creates. I think that a particularly vivid example of this is the phrase “famishing for flesh” which is quite ghastly and sounds almost monstrous, like a zombie perhaps, which completely twists the whole poem and completely takes away any possible empathy. Another way in which Owen uses form to increase detachment is by completely overwhelming the poem with large amounts of alliteration and onomatopoeia which he does in the poem ‘Exposure’, where so much of the energy in reading goes to the almost tongue twisting phrases that you almost forget to feel anything for the soldiers until you are brought back into reality by the closing sentence to each stanza. Phrases such as “iced east winds” and “flowing flakes that flock” use sibilance and very soft consonant sounds so that they really get muddled up in your brain and are almost so confusing to us that the emotion is lost in them.
The same goes for the onomatopoeia in this poem, as words like “rumbles” and “stormy” conjure up the idea of stormy background sounds which almost transports you there, and although it could be argued that this would make the emotion you felt become stronger rather than weaker, I think that in fact you become lost in the sounds and feelings of the places where they are in rather than the emotions of the soldiers and again you are a bit overwhelmed with all the imagery and the empathy for those fighting is once again lost amongst everything else. I think that this is a clever trick of Owen’s because it takes some time to realise what is actually happening, and once you realise all the death and despair of the poem it also serves the purpose of making the reader feel quite guilty that they did not feel it at first.
Overall, the idea of being detached and mocking of the situation is a very prominent theme in almost all of Owen’s poetry, whether it is written in that style, or actually discussing what it means to be numb to feelings as it is in ‘Insensibility’. Either way, the main reason behind its use tends to be to shock, although also it does have the effect of really making Owen’s poetry stand out and makes the reader thing much more about what the actual meaning is, which means that Owen is much more able to get his points across to them.