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Insensibility -- Wilfred Owen

(Poem #232) Insensibility

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 mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
-- Wilfred Owen

The Longman Book of Poetry, 1900-1975, has this to say about today's poem:

"This is Owen's greatest poem and one of the great poems of the cntury. The
argument is complex and ambivalent. It seems to distinguish between the
necessary insensitivity of men who have to survive in conditions so appalling
that they might go mad, and the unawakened insensibility of people who have
never been confronted with the hard facts of what war is really like. Owen
recognises and gives full value to the toughness and self-control of the soldier
who has lived through the horror and found some means of withstanding its full
impact on the senses. At the same time he sees the pity of this. Nevertheless,
he knows that he as a naturally over-sensitive man can only do his job properly
in the war if he too can get a grip on himself. To be able to feel compassion,
and yet not be overcome by it, seemed to Owen the great virtue in the war and by
implication the great virtue in human affairs. Like Keats, who wanted to be a
surgeon, Owen honoured and admired the infantry officer who had the insight to
feel and at the same time the will-power to control his feelings in the interest
of his men...

... part of the poem's power comes from its amazing simplicity and abstraction.
We seem to be reading not about the problems of English soldiers on the Western
Front in 1917 but about the problems of the damned in hell."

    -- George MacBeth


Siegfried Sassoon's introduction to Owen's Poems can be found at

There's a brief bio and some analysis of Owen's poetry as a whole at poem #132

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