Lesson 3: The Pity of War

Owen’s war poetry is so different to the poems around that time. The fundamental difference lies in his perspective and purpose. Owen had changed his attitude, he no longer tried to obtain verbal beauty, he now wrote to tell the truth about modern war. His poetry became a warning about what men were doing to each other.

He saw his role now: to make others ‘see’. His new truth was his experience of war. Having been in the trenches he could no longer linger in the beauty of poetry, rather, he used it to expose the brutality, and truth of war.

However, Owen had a vision of war that extended far beyond the anger, bloodshed and agony he re-created so vividly. He sought to expose the traditional view of war as ‘noble’, as seen in the poetry and propaganda of the time, and to do this he had to depict the horrors he experienced; death, madness and mutilation.

It is important to note that Owen did not dwell of these horrors for their own sake. They served his vision; the facts of war, and the human experience. He speaks about what it meant to be on the Western Front in WWI, and also what it means to be a man. His poems help us see, and feel, the suffering of the individual intimately, but also makes us aware of the tragedy of the human condition. What man can do to man.

Owen’s Poetry –The Pity of War Summary

  • The difference in Owen’s poetry was one of perspective and purpose.
  • The attainment of verbal beauty (like the romantics of the time) was not his aspiration.
  • The war poems were written to tell the truth (Owen’s truth) about modern was, as it had not been told to before: to warn England and the world of what men were doing to one another.
  • The role of the poet, as Owen now saw it, was to warn; to see and, speaking, to make others see.
  • He had to express his experience of war – having seen the trenches; he could no longer linger in the Palace of Art.
  • His poetry is one of vision – his vision extends far beyond the bloodshed and the agonies he re-creates so vividly.  Owen’s desire to expose the traditional ‘noble’ and ‘poetic’ view of war naturally involved the depiction of horrors; and the realities of death, mutilation, and madness are concretely present in his poems.
  • These horrors are not dwelt upon for their own sake: they are there to serve a vision.  And the vision itself encompasses both the particular facts of war and universal and fundamental ones of human experience.
  • He speaks of what it meant to be on the Western Front, and also what it means to be a man.
  • His images burst into symbols before our eyes, and we feel, not the harshness of individual suffering, so much as the tragedy of universal pain.

The Meaning of Pity

  • Owen states: ‘My subject is War and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the pity’.  The truth of the poem, that is, lies in the truth and power of the emotion it expresses and evokes in the responder.  He feels vividly and honestly and re-creates his experience for the reader with poetic power – without this there is no truth!
  • Pity – though it includes anguish and anger at suffering, means something far more profound.  Owen sees War as the microcosm and symbol of the universal tragedy of human life – a tragedy enacted in the trenches of his past, and enacted I the future too, in other wars to come.  He laments on the idea that suffering and waste, violence and evil are the necessary conditions of human life.
  • He sees the tragedy of war in the context of human history, or eternity. He sees the splendour and beauty of life, the potentialities for grandeur of the human spirit, and the inevitability of suffering and death.  And the great and constant theme of his poetry is the tragic contrast between what we have the potential for and what we actually do – what might be and what is.

The inhumanity of man

  • Owens view of war is a more fundamental tragedy – the inhumanity of man, his brutal denial of human values, and extinctions of human potentialities.  The physical suffering he writes of is as much the suffering of guilt, the searing of the souls of men by the violence they do to others.
  • He pities the dead because they are dead, and the living because they must live with the knowledge of guilt and evil.
  • Even worse is the plight of those who have become dehumanised, who are too selfish and callous to understand tragedy, and cannot identify suffering.
  • Life and Love, physical beauty and spiritual innocence, the universal bond of sympathy and brotherhood, all that it means to be truly human: these are assaulted, degraded, denied, and destroyed by War.
  • His protest against war was thus a protest against war’s deliberate reversal of all the values that men should uphold.  It is an evil committed always and everywhere against humanity itself – this theme underlines the majority of Owen’s poems

Thematic Concerns stem from the above feelings:

  • Betrayal
  • Loss
  • Injustice
  • Evolution
  • Sacrifice
  • Social Indifference – Ignorance at home/Nobility of War “The old Lie”
  • Futility and waste
  • The Tragedy of the broken brotherhood of man


  • You are to write an introduction to the following question, based on your knowledge of Owen’s vision.
  • Remember to formulate a clear thesis

2007 HSC:

Distinctive ideas are at the heart of all poetry.

In your view, what are the distinctive ideas explored in Wilfred Owens’s poetry?


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