Insensibility

  
                                      I
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.

                                     II
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.

                                     III
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.

                                     IV
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.

                                     V
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.

                                     VI
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.

Writing Ideas

  1. Try to paraphrase Owen’s message in one or two sentences. Use those sentences as the start of your own poem about “Insensibility” or “Reading ‘Insensibility.’” Think about the distinction that W.B. Yeats made (alluded to by Austin Allen in his poem guide) between rhetoric—made out of the quarrel with others—and poetry—made from the quarrel with ourselves.
  2. Mimic Owen’s structure (if not his subject) by writing a poem that likewise depends on the Beatitude’s organization: so your first stanzas will treat those “Happy who” and your last those “Cursed who.”
  3. Owen’s imagery is at once powerfully concrete and abstract: for example, “the hurt of the colour of blood” which brings us close to the reality of blood by making its color—red—strange, even nonrepresentational. Find more such images and try to unpack them by separating concrete specifics from abstractions. Once you’ve figured out how Owen mixes and matches, try writing a set of similar images. (These might make a poem, or they might just stand on their own.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Owen’s poem is structured around Biblical verse, in particular the Beatitudes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Historically, the language and rhetorical devices of the Bible, especially the King James version, have provided inspiration for poets. See George Herbert’s “Love (III)” and much of Walt Whitman’s poetry. How do the Biblical allusions working in Owen’s poem? How does Owen’s use of the Bible compare to Herbert’s or Whitman’s?
  2. Why and when does Owen divide his poem into sections? How do parts of the poem echo or ignore other parts? How does this poem feel (or not) like a poetic sequence? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Use Owen’s poem as an opportunity to discuss the “Trench poets” of World War I. First you might ask students to characterize the mood or tone of this poem—and ask if they are surprised by that mood or tone. Before introducing Owen’s contemporaries Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, and Charles Sorley, have students read Rubert Brooke’s famous poem “The Soldier.” Ask students to compare Brooke’s to Owen’s poem. What difference do they note? What message does Brooke’s poem send that Owen’s negates? Have students explore (or handout selected examples from) the Poetry Foundation’s poem sampler of WWI verse. After students have spent time with a variety of WWI poetry, they might “microreview” it, summarizing its main themes and formal strategies in a short paragraph, or they might choose two poets to compare and contrast.
  2. Have students read, or read together, Austin Allen’s lively guide to this poem. Then have them read further into Owen’s body of work (many of his best-known poems are on this website). If students are interested in the facts of Owen’s biography, have them do further research: they might create a timeline or chronology of his life and poems, seeing how specific war experiences and battles influenced his work. As a final exercise, you might ask students to think about what kind of relationship between experience and poetry Owen’s work sets out: what, for example, do they make of his unfinished “Preface,” included by Sassoon in the first edition of his Poems that “Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry. / The subject of it is War, and the pity of War. / The poetry is in the pity.” After reading Owen’s poems, and further investigating his life and the contexts in which he wrote, have students think about that statement, either in a piece of discursive or creative writing.
More Poems by Wilfred Owen