Written by Wilfred Owen, Arms and the boy is a poem that gives readers an idea of the dirty politics, misunderstandings, innocence and the horrors involved with war in a time where most believed it to be a honorable and brave thing that proud patriots do. Set in world war one, the poem is a great example of the effects of propaganda, the innocence of young soldiers and the pressures put on them by society. I would recommend this text to teenagers who may not have been exposed to war or violence as this poem may give them a better understanding of what it really means to take another persons life.
The title “Arms and the boy” gave me the impression that these are two very different things and it made me think about what it actually means to carry weapons and use them in anger. For example I carry a rifle while hunting or target shooting, feeling its weight and aiming down the sight. The boy in the poem is doing the same but in his iron sights is on another human being, staring back at him horrified. This shows how much a person can be changed during war, when fear, pressures from society and others around you tell you to pull the trigger, throw the grenade or bayonet another person, while your own conscience is screaming no. I saw this in the first two lines of the poem; “Let the boy try along this bayonet blade. How cold steel is and keen with hunger of blood” which is phrased as if he is being controlled like a young child and implies that he is innocent and inexperienced. The second line was a stark contrast to me, the bayonet was “keen with hunger of blood” giving me the feeling that the weapon is evil, corrupting, malevolent and the boy is unsuited to it. Sometimes I see this unhealthy attachment to a weapon nowadays, where returned soldiers may always feel like they are carrying a gun, when writing, when throwing a ball, when hugging their family. Its imprint is always there, taunting them and reminding them of the things they did.
I believe the weapons the boy uses are somewhat a reflection of himself and countless soldiers like him during world war one. This thought occurred to me in the following lines describing the bayonet; “Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash and thinly drawn with famishing for flesh”. When I think of blue I imagine sadness and sickness which gave me the feeling that the rifles malice has become a sickness for the boy which is scarring and changing him into a person who is desensitized to and accepts death. “Flash” is a word that describes quick or sudden things, and its use here made me think that the boy very suddenly changes from an innocent young man to a killer when faced with death. This idea is extended with the authors use of the words “thinly drawn” as if the boy is close to breaking and could “snap” at any moment. Reading this it seems that when faced with danger and the prospect of death, something primal inside all of us emerges. Sometimes it may be quick reflexes or sudden strength, but most of the time in war it is sadly a persons ability to murder without hesitation. Weather it be through anger, fear or desperation the ability to kill can come to the surface in anyone.
I noticed that Owen also uses this poem to reflect the blindness that was created in the soldiers minds when exposed to world war one propaganda. Which talked of a “glorious victory” and poised war against the enemy as righteous and pure. This type of brainwashing was used to persuade oblivious young men on both sides that killing was acceptable when it was for your homeland. The sentence; “lend him to stroke these blind, blunt-bullet leads” gave me this impression. “Stroke” is usually associated with love and caring, as mother would to her child or a child to a pet. However the boy seems to love and care for something that is designed to kill others and “nuzzle in the hearts of lads” he had become completely persuaded that he was doing the right thing even though in any other scenario it would be murder. This indicated that there must be an outside influence like propaganda. This can still be seen today in countries like Syria or Iraq, where the idea of peace and surrender seem so far fetched to them as war has became second nature and part of their culture due to a constant exposure to it.
I think Owen was trying to explain that although the boy is somewhat innocent it is not his weapon that kills others but himself, this is mostly due to his anger toward his enemies, grief for lost friends and fear for his life that in the moment seem to make his actions justified. “Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth. Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.” Reading this it seemed as if the young soldier is being given the weapons that brings death to others, yet they are sharp only because his grief and fear is. This reflects the idea that a lethal weapon is harmless unless behind it is a person willing to take a life. This is a contradictory line for Owen as in all others it is not the boys fault but the weapons, yet here he writes that in fact the weapon would be useless without him which gives me an idea that no one is entirely innocent.
In the closing paragraph of the poem Owen writes; “For his teeth seem for laughing round and apple. There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple; and God will grow no talons at his heels. Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.” With this concluding sentence I realized that overall, the boy was never intended for war and violence and neither is the rest of humanity. We make weapons that bring destruction and terror and leave countless amounts of dead, yet we have not a claw, talon or horn on our bodies. Which gave me the impression that it is not our bodies that are dangerous. but our minds. Unlike claws, they can be adapted to create all types of horrors.