Some of the men halt in the shade of a hill, eating and resting on whatever they can in a careless sleep. Others, though, stand and stare at the blank sky and realize that they have arrived at the end of the world. They watch the May breeze swirling the grass dotted with wasps and flies. Summer has infiltrated their blood like a drug but all they can focus on is the line of grass and the strange sparkling of the sky.
They stand there and look at the field for a long time, and think of the valley beyond full of buttercups and clinging brambles which affixed themselves to their shoes and would not yield. The men stand and breathe until, as a chilling wind, they get the word at which point their bodies and spirits tense up for battle.
It is not a bugle cry or a flag being raised or "clamorous haste" – just a lifting of their heads and their eyes flaring up as if they were looking at a friend with whom the love has been lost. The men rise up and climb over the hill, racing together across the field. Suddenly the sky is on fire against them and little "cups / Opened in thousand for their blood". The green fields seem infinite.
Those who are running and leaping to avoid bullets or face the hot "fury of hell's upsurge" or fall beyond the verge may have been swooped up by God, some say. Those who rush into hell are "outfiending all its fiends and flames" with their own inhuman behavior and their glories and shames. They crawl back out into the cool peaceful air. The speaker wonders why they do not speak of their comrades that "went under".
"Spring Offensive" is one of Owen's most famous poems. It features a ten-syllable line with a mixed iambic-trochaic meter as well as irregular rhymes interspersed with couplets. There are juxtapositions between silence and noise, inaction and action, life and death, and peace and war.
The poem begins in a quiet mood, with some soldiers reclining and sleeping while others stand still, restless on this "last hill" and looking out to the horizon. There is a sense of stillness, calm before the storm. Nature is gentle and beneficent here, with the grass swirling in the breeze and the sun warming their bones and oozing into their veins, bringing respite from pain. The stillness lasts for hours, and the speaker muses on buttercups and brambles. Anecdotally, this scene is said to have originated from a memory of Owen's; the Owen family was returning from church one Sunday evening before the war and Wilfred saw the buttercup petals on his bother Harold's boots, commenting "Harold's boots are blessed with gold." The men are lulled into calmness in their pastoral scene – they "breathe like trees unstirred".
Even in the first two stanzas, however, there are hints that all is not well. Owen foreshadows the doom that is to come with the fact that this is "the last hill" and that some men cannot sleep. There is a sense of watchfulness and waiting. This waiting comes to an end when the "May breeze" becomes a "cold gust" and the men hear "the little word" that alerts them to the imminent battle. This is not a battle tinged with glory and heraldry, for no instruments, flags, songs, or outburst occur. The battle comes upon them quietly but swiftly; their repose is short-lived. Owen is a master at creating a mood of tension. The stanza ends with an ominous and bitter comparison of the sun's inability to prevent the coming clash to a friend with whom the love has been lost. This is also a rejection of Nature herself, for men cannot embrace Nature as well as participate in something so directly contradictory to her.
In the fourth stanza the battle comes down on the men with fury as they race up the hill and across the field – the "whole sky burned / With fury against them". Nature's "green slopes" are now chasms and infinite space. The men are bleeding, with "soft sudden cups / Opened in thousands for their blood". It is a strange image, and one that writer Kenneth Simcox for the Wilfred Owen Association likens possibly to the Eucharist.
In the fifth stanza Owen ventures into more poetic imagery as he depicts the men leaping over "swift unseen bullets" and perhaps being swooped up by God to heaven as they fall over the brink. The inclusion of the phrase "some say" is ambiguous; it could be wry, or it could be musing.
In the final stanza Owen depicts the hell that the soldiers are rushing into. This hell can be literal in that it refers to the enemy's trenches, or it may also be the figurative hell of the underworld. The soldiers there are even more terrible and glorious than the fiends already there, with their "superhuman inhumanities". Finally, the soldiers emerge back into the "peaceful air" but their mouths are silent. They do not speak of their comrades who "went under". Simcox wonders, "Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity of war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought?"
Spring offensive; by Wilfred Owens focuses on the uselessness for war. There is a striking contrast between the first and last few stanzas, as in the beginning all is calm, slow and pleasant. From the 5th stanza onwards, there is a sudden change from the serene environment, to an outbreak of activity.
The poem starts off with peace and tranquility. ‘Lying easy, were at ease and finding comfortable chests and knees, Carelessly slept.’ However even this early in the passage the last two lines connote the violence which is yet to come. ‘To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge, knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.’ The sky being described as blank, suggests that there is nothing good lying ahead of them and when ‘feet’ is used in the passage it implies that it is their feet that keeps them walking on ahead. It shows their reluctance, that, if given a choice, they wouldn’t be taking this path.
The 2nd stanza describes the kindness of nature to the soldiers. It soothes their pain and the breeze makes them relaxed. ‘by the may breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge, for summer oozed into their veins, like an injected drug for their bodies’ pains’ Bodies’ pains connotes that they have already been fighting at another front. It is an introduction to the next two lines of the poem, which like the previous stanza are warning about the imminent war. ‘sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass, fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass’ The imminent line of grass behind described is the battle field and the sky flashing, gives a warning for what is about to happen.
As a continuation of the 2nd stanza, the 3rd stanza, also describes nature, as being on their side. ‘where the buttercup Had blessed with their gold’ However, there is increased warning. The brambles are portrayed as hands, which could clutch and try to prevent you from going anywhere ‘Where the little brambles would not yield, But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands; they breathe like trees unstirred’
The 4th stanza is different somewhat different to the first three stanzas as, it has little mention of nature. In this stanza, the soldiers are being prepared for war, yet there is not mention nor indication of it. ‘No alarms Of bugles, no high flags, no clamourous haste’ However when it is said ‘the sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.’ The idea of death is reinforced into the minds of the reader, as the sun represents life and to say farewell to it, would mean death. The last two lines of the poem also describe life and what they will lose with this battle.
The 5th stanza is the beginning of the war. The speed of the poem increases dramatically. The first two lines describe their initiative action and the rest of the stanza, the reaction. Instead of having an actual opponent fighting back, Owen has described nature fighting the soldiers. All the scenery created by the war, has been portrayed as things caused by nature. ‘And instantly the whole sky burned With fury again them’ this phrase was used to depict the sudden explosion of the bombs, yet to state that the ‘sky’ burned, he emphasizes the extent of the battle. By using nature to describe the fighting and the results of the it, it makes the opponent seem huge and the battle hopeless, it also gives the feeling that everything is against them. Upon using ‘earth set sudden cups In thousands for their blood’ It implies that the whole world wanted their blood to be shed in puddles on the ground. The last line also describes the death of many soldiers. ‘chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space’ This connotes that the earth suddenly split and swallowed everyone up with it, and an effective technique of declaring the demise of many.
The last stanza is the conclusion to the event, and it is also in this stanza that more of the poets dislike for war is informed to the reader. In a continuation to the previous stanza, the poet informs us with the destructive nature of war, which is also cleverly portrayed as environment being the enemy, but unlike before, there are very few still standing and fighting. ‘of them who running on that last high place Leapt to swift unseen bullets or went up On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,’ After all many that were left, ended up being killed in the array of bullets and bomb blasts. There is much irony in this stanza of the poem. ‘Some say God caught them even before they fell’ The word which is striking is ‘some’ It connotes that perhaps god didn’t catch them, and they also died, only to arrive in hell, just like those which managed to survive.
The poet tells that those that remained were monstrous to their enemy, sequentially to win the war. ‘With superhuman inhumanities’ By using these expressions, the poet has highlighted the extent acted by the men as they are said to be inhumanities instead of cruelties. The last four lines of the poem shows the poets thought on war. Their battle is described as having ‘immemorial shames’, which connotes that the war was pointless and the victory empty. This is furthered by the last line of the poem ‘why speak not they of comrades that went under?’ This tells that the survivors of the war did not converse about their dead companions and it implies that it would have only brought upon pain and further the notion: that war is pointless.
The poem has been written with style. Although contrast via nature is used to exaggerate the impact of war, it is very effective in the poem. Owen has clearly succeed in expressing his view of peace and the pointlessness of war.