Over “the last Hill”: Wilfred Owen’s “spring Offensive”


Wilfred Owen, Spring Offensive, First World War, War poetry, Border crossings, French landscape, France, Sensuousness, Touch, Romantic Poetry, Conflict

Being the poet’s last completed piece, “Spring Offensive” makes France Wilfred Owen’s last poetic landscape. The article explores the ways in which “Spring Offensive” continuously crosses and blurs the borders between the French landscape and the poet’s English heritage; it also emphasizes the sensuousness of the landscape and of the war experience, so that the bodies of the soldiers and nature fuse and interact. “Spring Offensive” thus comes to reflect Owen’s search for balance, a search of which the French landscape becomes the natural yet symbolic representation.

« Spring Offensive » étant le dernier poème terminé d’Owen, la France devient le dernier paysage poétique de l’œuvre. Cet article étudie la façon dont « Spring Offensive » traverse et dissout les frontières qui séparent le paysage français et l’héritage anglais du poète ; le poème, parce qu’il se concentre sur le caractère sensuel du paysage et de l’expérience de guerre, permet également la fusion du corps des soldats avec celui de la nature. Ainsi, le poème reproduit la recherche d’équilibre de Wilfred Owen : le paysage français en devient la représentation naturelle et symbolique. 


In his recent biography of Wilfred Owen, Guy Cuthbertson observed that if Shropshire was the land of A.E. Housman, the land of Wilfred Owen, which he calls “Owenshire,” would have most likely been located in France (Cuthbertson, 29). France is just as central to Owen’s poethood as England. He grew up in Great Britain where he saw the landscapes and Roman ruins that inspired most of his early poetry. He then lived in France before and throughout the war; his experience on the French Western Front became the inspiration for many of his war poems, which are generally acclaimed as his best and most accomplished pieces. “Spring Offensive” is one such poem: it recalls a real offensive Owen survived in April 1917, but also stands out as Owen’s last completed piece, which in turn makes France the last Owenian poetic landscape. Aside from being Owen’s last completed piece, Santanu Das argues that the significance of “Spring Offensive” lies in its truthfulness (Das, 164) – Owen neither lies about the exhilarating sensations of “going over the top,” which he describes in his letters from France and in the poem, nor does he reject his previous political commitments and beliefs about the war. This truthfulness is reinforced by the sensuousness of the poem, which especially relies on touch and movement to recreate the experience of battle without glamorizing it.

I would therefore like to contend that in “Spring Offensive” the French landscape becomes the natural yet symbolic representation of Owen’s inner struggles and search for balance. The poem maintains a delicate equilibrium between sensations and abstractions and reveals a certain degree of harmony and unity between the soldiers, the French landscape and the poet himself but also unites Owen’s English heritage with his French experience of the war. To expose this argument, I will focus on two main aspects of “Spring Offensive”: border crossing and sensuousness. The opening of the poem blurs the boundaries between the French landscape of war and descriptions of traditional English landscapes. This first border crossing leads to other crossings that become apparent when focusing on Owen’s use of the senses. The poet’s focus on the five senses, but also on movement, makes the soldiers’ bodies interact with nature, which helps explain how Owen creates a sense of balance between sensations and abstraction, but also between a heroic representation of the soldiers and the voice of anger and protest he is famous for. 

Crossing borders in “Spring Offensive”: from the pastoral landscapes of English poetry to the French landscape of war

France is described throughout much of Owen’s poetry and inspired so many of his poems that Guy Cuthbertson locating Owenshire in France accurately places the essence of the poet’s work. The landscape of war is the battered landscape of France – a landscape that bears the traces of battle and reflects the effects of the war on the soldiers’ bodies and minds. In “The Show,” the land is diseased and old, “pitted with great pocks and scabs of plague” (l.5), as if the war itself were an infectious disease afflicting the world. The comparison to the plague and small pock accurately depicts the shell craters that defaced the landscape, but also anchors the horrors of war in the human body, turning the landscape into a metaphor for the soldiers’ physical suffering. The French landscape of war is also one of slime, mud, rain and snow. “Exposure” equates the endlessness of the war with natural impressions of lassitude; the soldiers “only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy” (l.12), as if the whole world had become a never-ending day of rain, abridging all hope for light and peace. The only reference to grass seems far remote in “Exposure,” and appears to be a characteristic of England rather than of France. The soldiers, waiting in trenches in the snow, can only dream of the “grassier ditches” and of the “blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses” they must have once known in England (l.23-24). Again, the landscape of France is described as a battered place of danger and agony, a place much closer to Hell than to the pastoral landscapes of England and of English poetry. 

Yet, in naming the land of Owen’s poetry Owenshire, Guy Cuthbertson also calls up Wilfred Owen’s English heritage, as if Owenshire could stand alongside Oxfordshire, Derbyshire or Yorkshire. Doing so, Cuthbertson merges the France of Owen’s poetry with England and blurs the boundaries that separate the two countries. This, in turn, evokes Rupert Brooke’s famous lines from “The Soldier”: 

    If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam; 
A body of England’s, breathing English air, 
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. (1-8) 

Like the soldier Brooke describes in the sonnet, Owen grew up breathing the air of England, enjoying its rivers and a sun that had not yet lost its nurturing power, contrary to the sun of France the poet appeals to revive the dying soldier in “Futility.” The poet also died in a foreign field, during the crossing of the Oise-Sambre canal, and so became a “body of England’s” buried deep in the soil of France. The borders separating the two countries therefore seem to merge into Owenshire, a land that is a mixture of English heritage and French experience. 

“Spring Offensive” is one of the poems that best represents Owenshire. Its composition was prompted by a real offensive Owen survived in April 1917, which makes France the inspiration for the piece. Jon Stallworthy, however, dates the beginning of the composition to July 1918, when Owen lived in Scarborough, England, and explains the last revisions to the poem were made in France in September 1918. The very writing of the poem therefore crossed the borders of France and England, but still marks France out as Owen’s last poetic landscape. Yet, there is no clear, direct mention of France in the poem, as if France had somehow been abstracted or distilled into poetry. In fact, Owen rarely mentions France in his poetry: aside from a passing reference in “Futility” and another in “Smile, smile, smile,” France is not named. The location of the poems is however hinted at in other pieces, especially in some of Owen’s titles, such as “At a Calvary near the Ancre,” which places the poem in Picardy or “Le Christianisme” and “A Terre,” which both have French titles. Still, to a reader completely unaware of the context in which “Spring Offensive” was created, the first few lines can sound familiar: 

    Halted against the shade of a last hill
They, and eased of pack-loads, were at ease; 
And leaning on the nearest chest or knees
Carelessly slept. 
 But many there stood still
To face the stark blank sky beyond the ridge, 
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world. 
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge; (1-9) 

The lines conjure up the descriptions of pastoral England that shape so many of the spring poems of the late 18th and early 19th century celebrating either the month of May or the beauty and fertility of the season. For example, while the speaker of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” sits “reclined” in the “breezy air” (l.2, l. 18), Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Spring” lets its speaker hear the “busy murmur” of insects (l. 27). These two examples echo “the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge” and the verb “halted against” (l.9, l.1) of “Spring Offensive,” making it sound as if the war could be forgotten for an instant and as though the soldiers were standing on the border between England, their feet still deep in the green grass where insects buzz and fly, and the torn landscapes of France. 

Even closer to the landscape descriptions of “Spring Offensive” are elements from John Keats’s early poem “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”.[1] The poem opens with the lines “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill, / The air was cooling, and so very still” so that the soldiers of “Spring Offensive” almost seem to mimic Keats’s speaker’s pose. Inspired by the sights of spring, the speaker of “I stood tip-toe” later describes “a bush of May flowers with the bees about them” where “ardent marigolds! / Dry up the moisture from [their] golden lids” (l.29, l. 48-49), much like the buttercups that stick to the men’s boots in Owen’s poem. In his new biography of Wilfred Owen, Dominic Hibberd comments on the composition of the landscape of “Spring Offensive” and notes that the poet relies on his English heritage, both poetic and personal. “Long ago,” Hibberd writes, “in his early enthusiasm for Keats, Wilfred had hoped for a vision like those granted to ‘old dreamers on May Morn’, and his last finished poem is set in a May, Shropshire-like landscape, where Wordsworthian nature is a moral teacher” (Hibberd, 2019). Sleepiness, the month of May, a gentle breeze, long grass and the song of insects buzzing in the speaker’s ears are indeed so many traditional motifs of pastoral and Romantic poetry that Owen draws on to write the description of the landscape of “Spring Offensive”. Nature even becomes a sort of moral teacher in the poem, as the branches hold on to the men’s boots to try and keep them from going into battle. Wilfred Owen’s biographers Dominic Hibberd and Jon Stallworthy also note that the buttercups he mentions line 15 are a memory from a walk the poet took in Shropshire with his brother Harold when they were teenagers. Stallworthy collected Harold Owen’s words; his brother would have then remarked: “Harold’s boots are blessed with gold,” (Stallworthy, 44),[2] a phrase the poet takes up again in close association with the buttercups of “Spring Offensive” as he writes: “where the buttercups / Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up” (l. 15-16). Even though Owen’s poem actually takes place in France, it therefore contains memories of the poet’s British childhood and elements of traditional English and British poetry he assimilated over the years. 

Yet, the landscape of the introduction is also unmistakably French, with its buttercups, warm fields and grassy hills that easily let the reader picture the arable lands of France. After the first few lines, the landscape gradually becomes even more French as it comes to bear the marks of a war that never really touched the British countryside. The landscapes of the Western Front, in the northeast of France and Belgium especially, are indeed characterised by mud, slime, shell holes and fire, and though the landscape of “Spring Offensive” is not pinned as specifically French, the descriptions are clearly inspired by Owen’s experience of the French Western Front and of the trenches. In his letters home, the poet writes about France, the villages he passes and the Front line. Writing to his mother on 16 January 1917, Owen describes No Man’s Land: 

After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes. High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us. (Owen, Letters 427)

After 1916, in the poet’s correspondence, France is often limited to No Man’s Land and the colours that best describe it: fire or blood red, mud brown and black. In the poems, as in the letters, the green Romantic scenery of leaves, branches, and trees gives way to a scene where the “sky [burns],” the small flowers collect blood and the hills open like the gates of Hell. One of the main characteristics of the French landscape in Owen’s poetry is indeed its resemblance with Hell. “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” represents the war as “the sorrowful dark of hell” (l. 30); “Cramped in that Funnelled Hole” has the soldiers lie in “one of the many mouths of Hell” (l.5). Upon seeing the privates plagued with shell-shock, the speaker of “Mental Cases” wonders whether he and his interlocutor “walk hell,” calling the soldiers themselves “these hellish” (l.9), while the speaker of “Strange Meeting,” having seemingly escaped from the battlefield, finds himself standing in Hell as well. In or out of battle, the men appear to be forever trapped in the nightmarish underworld that France has become. 

Even when it is not referred to openly, Owen describes a realm of fire, lime and pain which are all characteristics that poets and writers use to describe Hell in poetry and in the Bible. In the New Testament, for instance, Matthew declares: “So it shall be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, /And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew, 13:49-50). The lines evoke Owen’s men standing at “the end of the world” (l.6) and the “fiends and flames” (l.41) of “Spring Offensive.” Owen’s choice of words is also reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno; in Canto XVI, for example, the speaker exclaims “Ah me! What wounds I saw upon their limbs, / Recent and ancient by the flames burnt it! / It pains me still but to remember it” (l.10-12), which recalls both Owen’s “I try not to remember these things now” in “The Sentry” (l.29) and the gassed soldier of “Dulce et Decorum Est” who is “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” (l.12). Similarly, the senses of the soldiers in “Insensibility” have been dulled by “some scorching cautery of battle” (l.28) and the men in “Greater Love” carry the burden of war “through flame and hail” (l.24). These references are, of course, not specifically French in nature, but they are a few examples of the way Owen transforms the French landscape into a physical experience and representation of Hell. Once combined with the descriptions of the battered, torn and diseased land of agony battles have turned fields into, the image of France at war is complete and, as Guy Cuthbertson contends, Owen then finds himself “in a new territory” where “familiar France ha[s] become strange” (Cuthbertson, 167). The France the poet had known, loved and described in his letters from Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre, with its “rich leafage” and its “hydrangeas (hortensia) with purple inflorescences” was gone (Owen, Letters 270). The several pictures of the landscape that Owen disseminates throughout his poetry then seem to all build towards the creation of “Spring Offensive,” a poem where the soldiers eventually “enter Hell/ And there [out-fiend] all its fiends and flames” as they run into battle (l.40-41), where they face “the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge” (l. 35) and where the earth breaks open into holes.

The soldiers, who have so far seemed to stand in the English countryside, in the same landscape their dreams take them to in “Exposure”, have now set foot in the hellish French landscape of war. This is made all the clearer in the fourth stanza of the poem: the men only come into contact with the violence of war after “they topped the hill, and raced together / Over an open stretch of herb and heather / Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned” (l.27-29). The adverb “instantly” reinforces the impression of a changing atmosphere, as if going over the hill meant stepping into new territory. Yet, this does not come as a surprise to the reader. The violent context that inspired the poem is hinted at from the very first lines through the use of the phrases like “the last hill” (l.1), “the stark blank sky” (l.6) or “the end of the world” (l.7). Death and impending doom have infected the land even before the assault begins. The “last hill”, as French as the context makes it, therefore really seems to become a symbolic frontier between two worlds, between the Romantic, pastoral poise and beauty of an immemorial English landscape and the overwhelming reality of the French Western Front, where the war and death itself pervade every aspect of the scenery, even when one has not yet gone into battle. 

The line between the two worlds, however, is never quite so clear as it seems – the French landscape of war and the Romantic motifs remain in a strange state of equilibrium. Just as the wartime context is hinted at from the beginning of “Spring Offensive”, the pastoral elements that make up most of the first part of the poem never quite disappear either. Instead of fighting men and bombs, the soldiers appear to be at war with nature itself. Line 30, the earth “[sets] sudden cups” to collect the soldiers’ blood; the cups could be shell holes, but they are also reminiscent of the buttercups that had blessed the men’s boots earlier. Similarly, the green slopes against which they once rested open up to bury the bodies of fighting men in revenge for their assault on the land. As the offensive ends, the soldiers return to the place they had first come from. Lines 44 and 45 read “And crawling slowly back, have by degrees / Regained peaceful air in wonder –”, as though the men were emerging from the desolation and violence of the French Western Front back into the pre-war pastoral world of Romantic poetry. The boundaries between the two worlds are crossed in order to create something new: “Spring Offensive” is neither a Romantic nature poem, nor is it a poem of pure protest against the war. Already, the border crossings at the heart of the poem and the representation of the French landscape come to reflect Owen’s search for balance – balance between his English heritage and the French context of battle, but also between the voice of his anger and protest – heard in the violent descriptions of war and the comparison to Hell – and his search for beauty and healing, found in the pastoral references and the sympathetic, loving description of the men’s interaction at the beginning of the poem. However, “Spring Offensive” does not only show a crossing of borders between British and French landscapes or between Owen’s experience on the French Western Front and his Romantic and poetic heritage; it also emphasizes the sensuousness of the landscape and of the war experience, so that the bodies of the soldiers and nature fuse and interact.

The sensuousness of the French landscape: fusing bodies and nature, reflecting the reality of war

Throughout the poem, Wilfred Owen calls attention to all of the senses. “Spring Offensive” first of all generates a mental image for its readers, the creation of which is reinforced by the fact that the poem begins in medias res and that the soldiers are either lying or standing still, as if we were watching a picture of soldiers waiting to go to battle. The pictoriality of the poem is also highlighted by the direct and indirect use of colours. The long grass evokes the colour green, the sky is either white or burning, suggesting the colour red, the buttercups and the sun are “golden” and the redness of blood eventually mixes with the colour of the earth and the green of the grass. The use of colours is especially significant in war poetry and literature of the First World War since, as Randall Stevenson remarks in Literature and the Great War, colour consciousness helps highlight the movements from the confidence in pastoral conventions to the realisation that they were in fact inadequate in confronting the violence of the war (Stevenson, 149). The colours of “Spring Offensive” reflect this idea – and Owen’s letters from France –, as the green of the seemingly pastoral first lines comes into contrast with the redness of blood and fire that characterises the war. 

Yet, colours do not simply emphasize the contrast between the world of war and the pastoral, or between the violent reality of the present and the idealisation of the past, they also contribute to crossing the borders between abstraction and sensation. As Dani Cavallaro explains, “many colours have been described as rough or sticky, others as smooth and uniform, so that one feels inclined to stroke them. […] Some colours appear soft (rose madder), others hard (cobalt green, blue-green oxide)” (Cavallaro, 61). This remark, which results from interviews with synesthete painters, not only reveals the synaesthetic value of colour, but its emotional and cognitive import. As Yeshayahu Shen has demonstrated, the way we conceive of abstract notions such as love, for example, is usually expressed metaphorically through the use of more concrete terms that are more readily apprehensible by the brain (Shen, 178-179). This is also true of colour, which we qualify as thick, rough or soft – adjectives that relate to the sense of touch – to get a better grasp of the emotion and sensation that we get upon seeing a colour. Applied to “Spring Offensive”, these two conceptions show that in opposing the green of grass, a colour culturally associated with hope and nature, to red, which Western cultures tend to associate with anger and violence even outside war contexts, Owen uses sensation as a springboard for the reader to feel the emotion linked with the war and then to better grasp the abstract idea of conflict, combat and violence. It almost seems as if the French trench landscape had been Owen’s raw material, a material which he then distilled into poetry and into a more abstract and universalised representation of war that is no longer French per se. Rather, the specifics of topology and geography are erased and give way to a physical and poetic immersion into the world of War (of any war) quite reminiscent of one of the remarks made by the speaker of “Strange Meeting”: “I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled” (l.24-25). In “Spring Offensive”, France is abstracted and what remains is the sensory experience of war and of its landscapes. Yet the focus on sensation is also typical of trench warfare on the French and Belgian Western front. As Santanu Das explains, “this sensuous awareness of the surrounding world marks the experience of the trenches” (Das 74): trench landscapes are characterised by the way they feel and not by their location. The colours additionally contribute to making nature and humanity fuse and interact when the men’s blood becomes one with the earth or when the red colour of blood is reflected in the burning colour of the sky (l. 29-31). 

Similarly, the land is filled with the buzzing sound of insects, a buzzing that is slowly replaced by the stuttering of bullets in the air. Already, the worlds of nature and mankind seem to coalesce as the music of both insects and bullets comes to life in the [s] and [z] alliterations that run throughout the poem and give continuity to its language as they erase the differences between the natural elements and the man-made objects of destruction. The sun, which acts as a figure of love and embrace lines 25 and 26 and that could awake soldiers, “even in France” (l.4) in “Futility”, and the white sky both turn into the cause of death for many of the men that go into battle. Again, and contrary to “Futility,” “Spring Offensive” removes direct references to the real geographic location of the attack. No shells are mentioned in the poem – the reader only knows that “the whole sky burned / With fury against them” and that they “went up / On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge” (l.29-30, l. 34-35). These lines convey a strong visual image of a red, blazing sky and of areas of cracked, cratered ground that very well represent the common idea we have of fury, of hell or of war. Yet, there is no fury in the sky or in the ground – only invisible shells that parallel the “unseen bullets” of line 35. The repetition of the noun “fury” and the absence of specific references to the Western Front or to France relocate the violence and destruction of man-made war in nature, thus reinforcing the blending of boundaries between the soldiers and the natural world, and casting the war itself as a war between man and nature, or as a fight between lovers, which in turn begins to voice Owen’s anger and protest. The voice of the poet and his fury blend with Nature’s anger at the loss and desolation the war entails, thus striking a balance between the sensation and emotion of fury and the abstract idea we make of it. 

Sight and sound, despite the strength of the emotions and sensations they convey, are not, however, the senses Owen relies on the most to show the interaction between the French landscape and the soldiers and between sensations and abstractions. As Santanu Das has remarked, the poem begins in medias res and lays emphasis on movement from the very first line. The verb “halted” indeed implies movement and contact; it makes the bodies of men seem to move in slow motion, which reminds us of the corporeality of war and places the body as an object of perception within the landscape (Das, 153). Opening the poem on the verb “halted” accentuates the pictoriality of the poem, but also forces us to envision the soldiers as bodies about to move and presses us to watch them move as well. The landscape of France “Spring Offensive” is set in is not so much French as it is a moving, feeling, breathing land, a place seemingly imbued with its own sensations and feelings. The trees “breathe”, the grass “swirl[s]” as in a dance and the buttercups, like Nature’s priests, give the soldiers their blessing. The focus on touch and movement sensualises France, but it actually humanizes it as well because touch is the most body-related sense of all. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart writes that “[o]f all the senses, touch is most linked to emotion and feeling. To be “touched” or “moved” by words or things implies the process of identification and separation by which we apprehend the world aesthetically. […] [T]actile perception involves perception of our own bodily state as we take in what is outside that state” (Stewart, 162). 

The sense of touch, then, is the sense through which we become able to understand the reality of our own bodies, of another person’s body, but also of the separation between ourselves and the outside world. Touch, movement and observation of another body’s movements help us understand emotion, but the body, because it moves and experiences pain and pleasure as a sort of inner touch, is also the site of all human emotion. In focusing on movement and touch, Owen therefore deeply humanises both the landscape and the soldiers. The distance between the men and nature almost disappears, which also reduces the distance between the reader and the poem. Touch, movement and emotion facilitate empathetic identification. As Pierre-Louis Patoine argues, a profusion of textual somaesthetic sensations gradually prepares the reader’s body to feel the emotions and sensations of literary characters empathetically (Patoine, 254). The empathy thus created partly erases the distance between the reader and the text because unlike sound or sight, touch and movement require contact. This characteristic of touch and movement, both of which are somaesthetic sensations, therefore makes it possible to read “Spring Offensive” not only as crossing the borders between man and nature, or between Owen’s English heritage and his French experience of the war, but also as an attempt to bridge the gap that separates the reader from the text and to increase the reader’s sympathy for the soldiers’ fate.  

In the second stanza, the branches, bushes and flowers move and even act humanely; their gestures are those of a man or a woman holding a loved one back so he does not leave or so he can be kept away from danger. The use of the verbs “clutch” and “cling” line 18 communicates both the painful movement of nature towards the soldiers and its desperation – no word is uttered in the stanza, but the feeling of the hand-like branches on the soldiers’ legs is one of supplication. The sensation is one of entanglement and of being torn, both physically and mentally. Once again, though the scene is set in France and the Western front is recognizable, the main function of the landscape is not to locate the war, but to act as a projection of the soldiers’ inner struggles between love of nature, desire to rest, and military duty instead. The reader is made to feel that the soldiers do not want to betray the nature that so generously nurtured them by fighting and destroying, but that they must fight anyway. This also leads to sympathetic identification with the soldiers, and with nature. In fact, nature itself appears to sympathise with the soldiers, an impression which, again, is encouraged by the repeated use of sensations in the poem. Daniel Hipp makes a similar remark about Owen’s depiction of the sky in the first stanza, line 12: 

The emptiness perceived in “the stark blank sky” lends it an unsympathetic attitude toward them and predicts their deaths. But “the sky’s mysterious glass” is perceived to have “[f]earfully flashed”, a description which makes the sky itself the fearful party. This fear, attributed to the sky in this line, is more likely reflective of the men’s projected fears, but the fluidity of agency in these contrasting lines about the sky points to the element of sympathy that for Owen is the redemptive force of the poem and the war experience. (Hipp, 101)

Though it does not concentrate on Owen’s use of sensations in “Spring Offensive”, Hipp’s analysis of the poem and of the sky comes to the same conclusions as the exploration of sight, sound, touch and movement above: the association of the subject “mysterious glass” with the verbal group “[f]earfully flashed” connects sensations, feelings and the abstract idea of mystery. Similarly, the line lays emphasis on the projection of the soldiers’ feelings and emotions onto the landscape and on nature’s sympathetic response to these, making the French landscape a representation of the soldiers’ inner struggles and of Owen’s. Thus, despite voicing his protest and anger towards the war – towards the violence and the absurdity of war – Owen also shows that nature and the relationships the men share offer a chance for redemption, but also for sympathy and for beauty proving that equilibrium and healing can still be attained in the midst of war. 

Touch and movement also carry and evoke emotion in a more visceral way than sight or hearing would have, which subsequently leads to the blending of emotion, sensation and abstraction together. In the lines in which nature acts as a loving figure to the soldiers, sadness mixes with the sensations felt in nature and helps us grasp the concepts of war and peace that appear throughout the poem more fully. Even the offensive starts without any visual or auditive cue; instead of flags or bugles, a thrilled word is spoken line 19, the reaction to which is emotional and physical movement. The body and the soul of the soldiers move together and are equally affected upon hearing the word – they come together and are bound (“begird”, l.20) and become tense (“tighten”, l.21) as they prepare to act. Yet, it seems the body and soul react not so much to the word they hear as they do to the trembling, nervous movement and ecstatic emotion conveyed by the verb “thrills”. The line goes even further in expressing the strange balance of feelings and sensations that the soldiers experience before going into battle: the “little word” that “thrills” line 19 is like a “cold gust” – it both excites and frightens. In that sense, Santanu Das is right in stating that in “Spring Offensive”, “Owen reconceptualises poetry as a testimony to the senses” (Das 163) and that the significance of the poem lies in its truthfulness: Owen does not deny that there is something exhilarating about going into battle – physically, the experience is a complex mixture of adrenaline rushes that can make one feel superhuman (a word Owen himself uses line 43) and of fear and disgust, but this truthfulness to experience is only made possible by the heightened sensuousness of the poem. We could also go further and say that Owen does not simply reconceptualise poetry as a testimony to the senses, but that in so doing, he also reimagines France and the trenches, condensing them into a physical, sensuous, truthful and perhaps dislocated experience of warfare. 

Between lines 27 and 40, “Spring Offensive” entirely immerses the reader in the sensory experience of the war. The French landscape becomes all movement, touch and pain. What to an outsider would have remained a very abstract idea of war comes to be experienced through the senses and therefore bursts into reality, though the lack of topographical details keeps the balance between abstraction and sensation intact. Focus on sensation intensifies the reading experience because it favours empathetic identification, but also because it blurs the boundaries between what belongs in the work of art and what happens in real life, an idea that Owen might have inherited from Keats, which again contributes to the crossing of borders the poem exemplifies. Writing his brothers about the painting Death on the Pale Horse, John Keats had indeed famously remarked: “But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality”.[3] The poet’s words suggest that for a work of art to move the spectator, it must come into contact with him or her, make the spectator strongly feel – by way of the senses and of feelings – art interact with reality. The interaction between the reader’s reality and the work of art are themselves a sort of border crossing that partially dissolves the bounds that separate real life sensations from the sensations displayed in the poem or the painting under observation. Keats’s statement has since been corroborated by neuroscientific and linguistic research on sensation, and more specifically on mirror neurons. As Paolo Della Putta puts it: “According to the Embodied Semantics paradigm, linguistic concepts are represented in the brain within partially overlapping neural substrates recruited to enact and experience the action a word refers to (Della Putta, 21), meaning that upon reading action words, words referring to movement, the brain both processes the word linguistically and somehow recreates the impression of movement within the brain. The regions of the brain that would activate upon actually doing the action of the movement-verb also activate upon reading it. 

In Owen’s poem, the use of verbs like “open”, “chasm”, “steepen”, “run”, or “plunge” linguistically reproduces the perpetual movement of both the soldiers and nature. The sensations of speed and pain that accompany these actions are passed on by the repeated use of guttural and sibilant sounds respectively, but also by the choice of monosyllabic words, which are quicker to pronounce than their polysyllabic counterparts. These sensory aspects of “Spring Offensive” thus set the readers’ minds into movement and make them interact with the contents of the poem. They become part of the action. The sudden translation of French landscapes into Hell also calls attention to the heroism of the soldiers who, despite fear and danger, still run and rush into hell “out-fiending all its fiends and flames” (l.41). The heroism is further underlined by the adjective “superhuman” line 43, though the adjective qualifies the noun “inhumanities”, which in turn highlights the idea that even if the men can be heroic in their actions, the reason that calls for such heroism is not heroic at all – it is not even human. 

After line 40, once the assault is over, Owen’s choice of words relies more heavily on longer words referring to abstract concepts such as “inhumanity”, “long-famous glories” or “immemorial shames”. There and in the final three lines, which read: “And crawling slowly back, have by degrees / Regained cool peaceful air in wonder – / Why speak they not of comrades that went under?”, Owen’s voice of protest, which is not raised against the soldiers, who remain comrades, but against the war itself, and part of the civilian response to the war is heard again. Raising his voice against the war while showing the soldiers’ heroism in turn creates balance and unity. This sense of unity is in fact secured by the use of repetitions and echoes – “last” is used lines 1 and 34, “the end of the world”, line 7, echoes “this world’s verge” line 37 and the “cool peaceful air” of line 46 seems to be a variation on the “May breeze” of line 9. The poem ends as it had started: in silence, stillness and sensory quietness, an almost pastoral picture, tainted with the memory and feeling of the war that was conveyed by the sensuous description of the offensive. The ending is poised between accusation and sympathy, between the beauty of nature outside of war and the horrors of battle, between France, England and No Man’s Land, between Owen’s voice of protest and his understanding of the inability to speak about the war, which both resonate in the final question. 

“Spring Offensive” is a poem of harmony and unity that maintains a balance between sensations and abstractions, between Owen’s Romantic heritage and his French experience at the war and between Owen’s celebration of the soldiers and his protests against the war. The poem constantly crosses borders. The borders between the two countries that shaped Owen’s poethood, Great Britain and France, are crossed through various references to traditional English poetry and to the experience of the war in France. The borders between the readers, the French Western Front and the text are partially erased by Owen in his choice of emphasizing the sensuousness of the French landscape and of humanizing it with the soldiers. Following, the focus on sensuousness calls attention to the sensory experience of the soldiers and of the war itself, but also to the feelings and concepts associated with the experience. Doing so, Owen avoids the trap of either glorifying the war itself or of dehumanising the soldiers. Ultimately, “Spring Offensive” significantly does not hide what the land and the body feel and perceive; it gives the French landscape and the soldiers who died there a way to speak of the comrades that went under without denying the terrible consequences the war had on both men and nature. Wilfred Owen found a voice in France; its landscape became a projection of the ambivalence of the war. France was not, however, the subject of his poetry. It was the raw material the poet distilled into poetry, displacing the locus of war from France itself to a more abstract place that makes the sensuousness of the landscape of “Spring Offensive” a site of questioning and conflict – beautiful and quiet, yet battered by the war, it mirrors the moments of peace the soldiers enjoyed as well as the violence of battle. Wilfred Owen does not once use the pronoun “I” in the poem but the way he fashions his poem and humanises the landscape still makes it possible to perceive the poet’s inner struggles and to see him find balance in accepting that some questions and issues can never be answered, must remain the unvoiced mystery suggested in the closing question: “Why speak not they of comrades that went under?”


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[1] Dominic Hibberd also notes echoes to Keats’s odes and to Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam in the poem, making the landscape a recollection of childhood memories and a recreation of the Romantic landscapes the two Romantic poets had taught him to admire. See Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. University of Georgia Press, 1986, p. 188.

[2] See also Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. University of Georgia Press, 1986, p. 186 

[3] Keats, John. John Keats: Selected Letters, éd. Robert Gittings, revised by Jon Mee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817. 

Laure-Hélène Anthony-Gerroldt is currently teaching translation and the poetry of Wilfred Owen at the Université de Bourgogne. She has recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled Le devenir poétique de la sensation keatsienne dans l’oeuvre de Wilfred Owen, and completed her PhD in English poetry at the Université de Bourgogne. Her doctoral research focused on the use of sensations and synaesthesia in the works of John Keats and on their influence on Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. She is currently working on Caroline Bertonèche and Marc Porée’s creative, virtual project around the celebration of the bicentenary of John Keats’s death. 

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