Text of the Poem

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
          But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
          What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
          But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
          But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches.  So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
          Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home:  glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
          We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
          For love of God seems dying.

To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces.  All their eyes are ice,
          But nothing happens.


  1. Owen employs a metaphor in his harrowing description of the dead soldiers. Their eyes are not literally made of ice; however, as the metaphor suggests, their deaths have dehumanized them, rendering their faces barely recognizable. Owen highlights the cruelty of God in allowing them to die in such a pointless manner while also suggesting that the governments that continue warring with each other have also taken the soldiers’ lives—and deaths—for granted.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. The repetition of the consonant sound “g” in “ghosts,” “drag,” “glimpsing,” and “glozed” is an example of alliteration, a device in which consonant sounds are repeated in rapid succession in order to emphasize a group of words. Here, it affects the rhythm by emphasizing the slow reluctance of the “ghosts” returning from their out-of-body experience while also developing the disoriented state of mind of the soldiers.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The archaic verb “to gloze” means to gloss over or cover with something. The speaker describes the soldiers’ having a collective out-of-body experience, in which their ghosts return home and witness the warmth of dying fires covered with red embers. Owen’s word choice has a double meaning: “to gloze” over something also means to make excuses for or to address a problem too lightly or with unconcern. It is therefore possible that he refers to the tendency for those who remain safely in England to minimize or explain away the extent of suffering endured by those fighting in the war.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Line twenty-one features assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds. Here, Owen repeats the long “a” sound in “pale” and “flakes” and the short “i” sound in words “with” and “fingering.” Assonance introduces a sudden musical, whimsical quality, and here it potentially mimics the increasingly delirious mental state of the soldiers as they begin to freeze to death. What's more, the use of alliteration with the repetition of the "f" sound in "fingering," "feeling," "for," and "faces" draws out the image conveyed.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Owen uses personification, or the assignment of human characteristics to nonhuman things, in his depiction of the weather. Personifying the snow and the wind, which in reality would not wander or react with “nonchalance,” suggests that both the wind and the snow are formidable enemies that wield the cold as their weapon.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The noun “nonchalance” refers to being unconcerned, calm, or disinterested. Owen’s word choice characterizes the wind as being indifferent to its harmful effects, to the suffering that it brings to the waiting soldiers. By the end of the poem, Owen suggests that perhaps it is God who is nonchalant and not the wind because He intended the soldiers to freeze to death.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Lines thirteen and fourteen are enjambed; the thought begins in one line, continues across the line break, and finishes in the subsequent line. Enjambment contrasts with Owen’s use of caesurae and end-stopped lines, because it speeds up the poem’s rhythm, thus creating an anticipation and confusion that possibly reflects the confusion of the soldiers. However, the sense of anticipation is met with only the declaration that, once again, nothing happens.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. The adjective “poignant” means distressing or deeply moving, often in a way that inspires emotional intensity. Owen’s word choice indicates the soldiers’ pessimism and weariness at the war and the weather that threaten their lives each day. It becomes clear by the end of the third stanza that the soldiers’ greatest threat is the weather, described through metaphor as the “melancholy army” that approaches in “shivering ranks of grey.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Owen uses simile, or the comparison of two things using the words “like” or “as,” twice in the second stanza: first, by comparing the sound of wind to the “twitching agonies” of men; second, by comparing the rumbling of far-off gunfire to a sinister forewarning of yet another possible war. Here, the two similes function together to create a third comparison between dying of exposure from the weather and dying from exposure to gunfire on the battlefield.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. Line seven is an end-stopped line, or a line that comes to a conclusion with punctuation. Similar to a caesura, an end-stopped line prompts a pause that affects the rhythm of the poem, encouraging the reader to slow down and consider important details. By ending this line with a period, the vivid imagery of the scene and the simile proffered are emphasized; the wind on the wires moves irregularly like the throes of pained soldiers, foreshadowing the soldiers’ deaths.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. The last line of the first stanza serves as a refrain, or a repeated line, throughout the poem. By repeating the phrase “But nothing happens” in stanzas three, four, and eight, Owen underscores the bitter irony of soldiers freezing to death while nothing happens—as opposed to dying in a bloody battle, as one might expect.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. This line contains sibilance, or the repetition of the consonant “s” sound. When recited aloud, the “s” sound contained in the words “silence,” “sentries,” “whisper,” “curious,” and “nervous” generate a hissing, almost shushing, sound. As a result, sibilance intensifies the poem’s ominous tone while also reinforcing rhythm.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. As it is used here, the noun “salient” offers a couple meanings that are relevant. First, “salient” is a synonym for “important,” “major,” or “significant,” which means that Owen’s speaker says the environment is confusing the soldiers’ ability to remember what is relevant and important to their situation. Second, the noun “salient” also refers to a bulge, an outwardly projecting section of a military line of defense. A salient extends into enemy territory; therefore, the soldiers occupying it are at great risk. The soldiers in this case have withdrawn from the salient for the night and are confusedly watching the “low drooping flares” that flicker from the frontline.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. The first line of “Exposure” contains a caesura, a break in a line of verse—in this case, a comma. Owen’s frequent use of caesurae throughout the poem is disruptive; it slows the rhythm in a way that seems to mirror the jarring experience of warfare. Here, the comma emphasizes Owen’s striking imagery, forcing readers to pause on the first line and consider how the speaker introduces the setting and condition of the soldiers.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor