'The Show' by Wilfred Owen

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My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped
Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Show: A Masterpiece in War Poetry

Wilfred Owen's The Show is a masterpiece of war poetry that captures the horror and senselessness of war in vivid and haunting language. Through its powerful imagery, intense emotions, and ironic tone, the poem exposes the brutal reality of the battlefield and the dehumanizing effects of warfare on soldiers and civilians alike. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the themes, literary devices, and historical context of The Show and demonstrate how it represents the pinnacle of Owen's artistry and his contribution to the canon of war poetry.

Background and Context

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an English poet who served as a soldier in World War I and was killed in action just one week before the Armistice. He is regarded as one of the greatest war poets of all time, alongside Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and others. Owen's poetry reflects his first-hand experiences of the trenches, the gas attacks, and the psychological trauma of war. His poems are marked by a combination of realism, romanticism, and modernism, and they convey a deep sense of moral outrage and compassion for the victims of war.

The Show was written in 1918, during Owen's last year of life, and was one of the poems he revised and polished extensively. The poem was not published until after his death, in the collection entitled "The Poems of Wilfred Owen" (1920), edited by his friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon. The Show is a relatively short poem, composed of four stanzas, with irregular line lengths and a free verse style. The poem's title refers to a military parade or a display of force, which is ironically contrasted with the grotesque and tragic scenes of war that the poem describes.

Summary and Analysis

The Show opens with a powerful and ironic image of a "shrieking train" that "rattles through / the night" like a "monster" or a "dragon." The train is carrying soldiers to the front, and it is described in vivid and terrifying language that evokes a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear. The train is personified as a "beast" that "cracks and grunts" and "hurls" its passengers towards death. The imagery of the train suggests that the soldiers are not in control of their fate, but are being dragged towards their doom by the machinery of war.

The second stanza of the poem shifts from the train to the battlefield, where the soldiers are "marching to slaughter" like "lambs" or "fools." The soldiers are depicted as helpless and ignorant victims of the war machine, who are "fed with lies" and "led by lusts." The irony of the situation is that the soldiers are supposed to be fighting for a noble cause, but they are being sacrificed for the sake of political and economic interests that are beyond their control. The contrast between the peaceful and innocent image of the lambs and the brutal and senseless reality of war is a classic example of Owen's technique of juxtaposing opposites.

The third stanza of the poem introduces a new character, a "girl who writhes" in agony and despair. The girl is presumably a civilian who has been caught in the crossfire of the war, and who is now suffering from the wounds and trauma inflicted by the soldiers. The girl is described in visceral and graphic language that emphasizes her physical and emotional pain. She is "hacked and flung," "crushed and torn," and "stabbed and quenched." The image of the girl is a powerful reminder of the human cost of war, and the innocent victims who are often overlooked or forgotten in the rhetoric of patriotism and heroism.

The final stanza of the poem returns to the image of the train, which is still "shrieking" and "rattling" like a "monster." The soldiers are now "huddled" and "cowed," like "dogs" or "sheep" that have been beaten and defeated. The tone of the poem is one of bitter irony and disillusionment, as the soldiers are revealed to be pawns in a game they cannot win. The image of the train, which represents the force and power of war, is contrasted with the image of the soldiers, who are reduced to mere objects or animals. The poem ends with a final rhetorical question that underscores the futility and tragedy of war: "But who shall stop the run of the millioned wheel?"

Themes and Literary Devices

The Show is a complex and multi-layered poem that touches on several themes and utilizes a variety of literary devices to convey its message. Some of the main themes of the poem include:

To express these themes, Owen employs a range of literary devices, such as:


The Show is a powerful and haunting poem that captures the essence of war and its impact on soldiers and civilians. Through its vivid and striking imagery, ironic tone, and intense emotions, the poem exposes the brutal reality of war and the senselessness of human suffering. Owen's artistry and his ability to convey complex themes and emotions in a concise and powerful way make The Show a masterpiece of war poetry that resonates with readers to this day. As we reflect on the centenary of World War I, it is important to remember the sacrifice and pain of those who have endured the horrors of war, and to honor the legacy of poets like Wilfred Owen who have given voice to their suffering.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Show: A Masterpiece of War Poetry

Wilfred Owen is one of the most celebrated war poets of the 20th century. His works are known for their vivid imagery, powerful emotions, and deep insights into the human condition. Among his many masterpieces, The Show stands out as a haunting and unforgettable portrayal of the horrors of war. In this 2000-word analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language of this classic poem, and examine how Owen uses them to convey his message.

The Show was written in 1917, during Owen's service in the First World War. It is a first-person account of a soldier's experience of a military parade, or "show," in which troops are paraded before high-ranking officers and dignitaries. The poem begins with a description of the preparations for the show, as the soldiers are drilled and polished to perfection. The tone is one of excitement and anticipation, as the soldiers look forward to the chance to show off their skills and impress their superiors.

However, as the parade begins, the mood quickly changes. The soldiers are no longer individuals, but mere cogs in a machine, marching in perfect unison and obeying every command. The speaker notes that "we are no longer a mob," but rather "a team." This transformation from individual to collective is a recurring theme in Owen's work, as he explores the dehumanizing effects of war on the individual.

As the parade continues, the speaker's attention is drawn to the spectators, who are watching the show with a mixture of awe and admiration. He notes that they are "blind" to the reality of war, seeing only the spectacle and not the suffering that lies beneath. The soldiers, he observes, are "actors" in a play, performing for the benefit of the audience. This metaphor of war as theater is a powerful one, as it highlights the artificiality and superficiality of the military spectacle.

As the parade reaches its climax, the speaker's thoughts turn to the casualties of war. He imagines the wounded soldiers lying in hospital beds, their bodies broken and their spirits shattered. He wonders if they too were once part of a show, and if they too were applauded for their bravery and sacrifice. This moment of reflection is a poignant one, as it reminds us that war is not just a game or a spectacle, but a brutal and devastating reality.

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most powerful of all. The speaker imagines himself as a corpse, lying on the battlefield and forgotten by all. He wonders if anyone will remember him, or if he will be just another anonymous casualty of war. This image of the forgotten soldier is a recurring theme in Owen's work, as he highlights the tragic waste of human life that war represents.

Throughout the poem, Owen uses vivid and powerful imagery to convey his message. The soldiers are described as "polished," "drilled," and "mechanical," emphasizing their dehumanization and loss of individuality. The spectators are "blind" and "deaf," emphasizing their ignorance and indifference to the reality of war. The wounded soldiers are "broken" and "shattered," emphasizing the physical and emotional toll of war. And the speaker himself is a "corpse," emphasizing the finality and irreversibility of death.

Owen also uses language to great effect in The Show. The poem is written in a simple and direct style, with short, sharp sentences that convey the urgency and intensity of the speaker's emotions. The use of repetition, such as the repeated phrase "we are no longer a mob," emphasizes the theme of collective identity and the loss of individuality. And the use of metaphor, such as war as theater, emphasizes the artificiality and superficiality of the military spectacle.

In conclusion, The Show is a masterpiece of war poetry, and a powerful reminder of the human cost of war. Through vivid imagery and powerful language, Owen conveys the dehumanizing effects of war on the individual, the ignorance and indifference of the spectators, and the tragic waste of human life that war represents. The poem is a haunting and unforgettable portrayal of the horrors of war, and a testament to Owen's skill as a poet and his commitment to telling the truth about the reality of war.

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