The Last Laugh Wilfred Owen Essay Contest

"Oh! Jesus Christ! I'm hit," he said; and died.

Owen made a point of choosing attention-grabbing opening lines, though few are as stark as this one. (THE LETTER has "Guh! Christ! I'm hit. Take 'old, Aye, bad." But that comes in the body of the poem.)

The earliest draft of THE LAST LAUGH dated February 1918 was titled LAST WORDS and Owen sent it to his mother whose religious susceptibilities may have received a jolt on her reading what was the first line:

"O Jesus Christ!" one fellow sighed

Perhaps she would have been mollified by his comment:

There is a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer.

As in this first verse.

Or perhaps not, for on 21st February he was writing to her:

That "Last Words" seems to have had rather a harrowing effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.

The poem having been chastened over several revisions and given a more penetrating title, it emerged with a regular stanza pattern but irregular metre, rhythm and rhyme: indeed pararhyme predominates. No soothing effects there and the same applies to mood and content. There seem to be six lines of what might be called "proper" poetry, while the rest could be extracts from children's nursery (un)rhymes. Children love onomatopoeia, and "chirped", "chuckled", "spat" "hissed" etc come in this category.

A typical Owen effect is his personifying of inanimate objects. Here the bullets, guns, bayonets and so on, all display human, or at least animal, characteristics, making the antagonism more real by casting them, not as the instruments, but as the agents of instruction.

Little I'd ever teach a son, but hitting,

Shooting, war, hunting; all the arts of hurting

Owen wrote in ironic vein in A TERRE. Nevertheless, the weapons of war did interest him in that their details feature in his output to a fairly immoderate extent: rifles, machine guns, big guns, shells, poison gas. We tend to forget that from a teenager Owen had been used to handling guns. he writes of having "a little shooting match" with his uncle. He shot in Bordeaux, bought his own miniature rifle in Aldershot, an automatic pistol in Amiens. He did well on his musketry course at Mytchett; went revolver shooting for pleasure in Scarborough and "scored dead central Bulls with five shots in a 4 inch group" in a friendly contest at Fleetwood.

We may sense a slight ambivalence in Owen's feelings about weapons. As well as providing a measurement of his skills, their raw power may have exerted a fascination. Certainly in this poem it is the bullets and shrapnel etc. that come out on top.

Who are the victims? (1) An old sweat whose language, however it may be interpreted, is of the Army. (2) A young soldier, not long from home, who invokes his parents:

Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead

(3) A somewhat older conscript with thoughts of wife or girl friend, "love-languid", his kiss destined for the wrong quarter altogether.

In each case the momentary response is different. Blasphemy/prayer, wistfulness and resignation, sentiment. Only the manner of their destroyers is the same. Chuckling, guffawing, tittering, grinning. In a word, derision. "Fool!" proclaims the shrapnel cloud.

"Tut-tut!" the machine guns mock sardonically. "In vain, vain, vain" snigger the bullets.

At the beginning we were introduced to what we thought would prove to be an interesting and important theme, the relationship between blasphemy and prayer. But it doesn't happen. Any question about ethics is simply irrelevant. In the terms Owen offers us in this particular poem, ethics don't come into it. The armaments of war have knocked morality sky high and theirs is unquestionably the last laugh.

We may ask whether Owen ever wrote a more cynical, dispiriting poem than this, in which nihilism reigns and everything amounts to nothing in the end. As in the case of the young soldier,

Then smiled at nothing……..being dead


Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001

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The Last Laugh - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in The Last Laugh

In The Last Laugh Owen wants us to see the way in which the guns and gas, the shells and shrapnel have the last laugh at the death of the three men. Their deaths are described in a straightforward, factual style, although the fact that the third man’s face ‘kissed the mud’ is a parody of his ‘love languid mood’ l.11

The main thrust of the imagery in The Last Laugh is the personification of the inanimate ironmongery which kills. Each of the weapons is given its own personality. Owen has them all mocking the dead with their human voices and humours:

  • The bullets ‘chirped’ l.3 - a perky, bird-like sound reflecting their size and speedy flight
  • Machine guns ‘chuckle’ l.4, a fatter sound than the chirp, as if amused by the events
  • The big gun ‘guffawed’ l.5, an uncontrollable deep laughter (the long ‘aw’ sound conveying the greater girth of the gun) surging out of its mouth
  • The shrapnel cloud ‘gestures’ its contempt l.9, the dust ‘rising above’ mere death 
  • The splinters from the shrapnel ‘spat’ and ‘tittered’, a mean, fractured sound reflecting their indiscriminate targeting of everything in sight
  • The ‘long teeth’ of the shiny bayonet blades ‘grinned’ l.13, a cold smile of triumph before they deliver the death blow
  • Shells are a rabble, a gang who ‘hooted and groaned’ in an uncontrolled fashion l.14, careless of the magnitude of what is really going on
  • The ‘hissed’ of the gas l.15 delivers the final contempt of the villain (who might be expected to be hissed) for his victims.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in The Last Laugh.

  • The power of the poem lies in the personification of the armaments. Compare personification of the weapons in The Last Laugh with their personification in Anthem for Doomed Youth
  • Each of The Last Laugh, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought in to Action is equally sinister in its own way. Which poem do you personally find most horrific in terms of Owen’s representation of the weapons?

Themes in The Last Laugh

This is perhaps the simplest and most direct example of Owen’s self-confessed theme - war and the pity of war. It contains all the facets of the theme:

  • Horror: the horror of suffering and the horror at the causes of that suffering
  • Religious hope and doubt: the prayer or blasphemy of line1
  • The mechanics of war: in every reference to the laughing weapons of war
  • Man’s inhumanity to man: Owen creates the humanity of the dying through their last word, yet they are treated inhumanely by those who instruct the armaments
  • Nihilism and waste: Then smiled at nothing……..being dead l.7

Investigating themes in The Last Laugh

  • The Last Laugh may be said to be the most cynical and despairing of Owen’s poems. ‘The pity is the poetry.’ How far do you agree that this is true for The Last Laugh?
    • Do you feel that this may be the darkest of Owen’s poem? If so, explore the reasons for this being the case.

A comic, mocking or satiric imitation of a form of literature or someone's action.

A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.

A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.

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