Text of the Poem

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,— 
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” 
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress. 
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: 
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, 
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”


  1. The last line of the poem is noteworthy in two respects. It is brief—much shorter than the other lines in the text—and the meter consists of four separate strong beats, in contrast to the iambic pentameter of the other lines. The effect is one of emphasis. There is nothing more to say between these two soldiers; in the absence of war, they are no longer enemies and are united forever in death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The sleeper’s description of his encounter with the speaker on the battlefield, as well as his previous description of the speaker having “frowned” while killing him, indicates that neither felt personal enmity toward the other. This supports the idea that were it not for the war, they would not have been enemies.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. “Parried” is the past tense form of “parry,” which means to make a countermove in warding off a weapon or an attack. “Loath” is a synonym for reluctant or unwilling. The words imply that in defending himself, the sleeper had not fought with anger or hatred in his heart. The idea is supported by the personification of “my hands”; describing them as “loath” imbues them with the human emotion of feeling reluctant or unwilling. A connotation of “cold” supports the personification, as it suggests a lack of fiery passion—the opposite of the connotations of “boil” in a previous line.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The poem concludes with the sleeper’s ironic revelation: the sleeper and poem’s speaker had been enemies on the battlefield, and the speaker had killed him the day before. “Jabbed and killed” implies that they had fought in hand-to-hand combat. The sleeper calls him “my friend,” just as the speaker had addressed him as “friend” earlier in the text, suggesting a major theme in the poem: that only the war had made them enemies in life.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Both assonance and alliteration are employed in these two lines through “wounds,” “war,” “where,” and “were.” The consonant and vowel sounds are soft, and the repetition of the sounds creates a peaceful tone that is consistent with the sleeper’s condemnation of war.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. “Chariot-wheels” is an indirect or implied metaphor for the machines of warfare that create bloody landscapes. The term summons images of classical or biblical times, foregrounding a biblical allusion in the next line. To “wash them from sweet wells” alludes to John 4:7–14 in the New Testament in which water symbolizes salvation and the Holy Spirit. Biblical allusions continue through the end of this stanza, and through them, the sleeper suggests that knowing the truth about war will save mankind from warfare and end bloodshed.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Off rhyme (“mystery” and “mastery”), parallelism, and repetition work together to make these two lines distinct in the sleeper’s description of himself in life. The structure in the two lines is identical; each line features a caesura (a natural pause) between two independent clauses, and the meter in the first half of each line is identical in its variation from iambic pentameter. The parallelism is enhanced by repetition, as the second line mirrors the first in most of its content. Through these literary devices, Owen emphasizes that the powers found in life are negated by death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Used here as a verb, “trek” means to make a long, very difficult journey, usually on foot. In the context of Owen’s poem, the word is especially appropriate since World War I was fought almost exclusively by troops on the ground, often in hand-to-hand combat. “Progress” refers to making advancements in all things that benefit humankind. Thus, the passage describes nations going to war as reversing course and moving away from the betterment of humanity, a depiction that supports the poem’s anti-war message.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Comparing the swift actions of those who will once again make war to those of a tigress creates the image of a tigress attacking her prey. The imagery suggests that those who initiate war are like beasts in the jungle, predators who attack without conscience or remorse.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. With one word immediately following the other, the “b” sound in “boil” alliterates suddenly and sharply with “bloody,” creating a jarring effect that emphasizes both words. “Boil” and “bloody” both have strong negative connotations; “boil” suggests heat, akin to anger and ire, while “bloody” is associated with violence and death. Together, the words create a disturbing visual image in describing how one war leads to another, spilling blood.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Something that has been distilled has been reduced to its most essential element or essence. War, the sleeper asserts, reduces all that is pitiful about war to its essence: the inability of those who die to speak the truth about it. The assertion supports the poem’s strong anti-war message.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Richlier,” a word Owen coins, is used here to mean “more richly.” Owen most likely uses it so that the line conforms with the iambic pentameter of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The speaker thinks there is no reason for him and the sleeper to mourn, since even the sounds of the war can no longer touch them. These lines are a turning point in the poem; they introduce the section of the stanza that develops the poem’s anti-war message through the sleeper’s response to the speaker.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. A flue is an air passage, shaft, or vent of some kind. In context, the word emphasizes that while the battle goes on above, no sounds of the fighting can be heard below, where the speaker has gone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. “Hall” and “Hell,” as well as “grained” and “ground,” are examples of “off rhyme”; the words come close to rhyming but don’t rhyme perfectly to the ear. Off rhymes are found at the ends of lines throughout this text, creating heroic couplets (a pair of rhyming lines in iambic pentameter) that accelerate the pace of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. Although the sleepers in this place are suffering, there is no suggestion that they are being punished by God, and the sleeper’s appearing to bless the speaker argues against the idea of sinfulness. This “Hell,” it seems, has been created by someone other than God.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. Meaning riveted or unmoving, “fixed” suggests the intensity of the disturbed sleeper’s stare while also creating an image of death that foreshadows the speaker’s realization regarding where he has arrived.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. “Encumbered” means burdened or constrained in some way from acting or moving. “Groaned,” a synonym for “moaned,” suggests pain or suffering. In context, “fast” refers to being firmly fixed or held in place, and “bestirred” is used to mean “roused.” Owen describes the inhabitants of the place where the speaker found himself as being tormented by their dreams or powerless in death. The passage introduces death, a subject which is discussed throughout the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The tunnel through which the speaker escaped was created by “titanic,” or massive, wars in the past. “Granites” refers to a very hard type of rock found in the earth; “groined” calls to mind a groin or groined vault, a construction of self-supporting arches designed to hold up a large expanse of ceiling. The alliteration of the “g” sound in “granites” and “groined” stresses each of the words and draws them together in the line, emphasizing the destructive power of war.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The speaker describes his means of escape from the battlefield as a tunnel, “profound” and “dull.” In context, “profound” means exceptionally deep, and “dull” implies the absence of any sensory stimulation. Owen’s diction, or word choice, suggests an otherworldly experience that is further described in the lines that follow.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff