In the poem “Asleep”, Wilfred Owen links sleep to death. The one word title of the poem depicts a scene of soldiers dying quietly and slowly, It is ironic that the word has only two short syllables and is pronounced lightly without stressing any of them, actually suggests such a heavy, serious theme-death. The poem opens with “under his helmet, up against his pack… work and waking”, suggesting to us their long battles and sufferings, not for just one day or two days, but “many days”. In the next line, “sleep took… eath took”, Owen make a direct comparison or rather, describe a process of how the soldiers died when they fell asleep.
We notice that “him” is made the subject that is taken by “sleep” and “death” which are personified ( a sense of dominance), suggesting that the soldiers going through the war is greatly victimized by it. The “aborted life” in the next line pictured a dying baby in the womb, this idea parallels to the idea of the soldiers dying in their sleep. The “chest”, “arms” and “blood” (parts of the body) are personified.
For instance, the arms are like humans, feeling “sleepy” and have the human tendency to fall “slack”, together with the blood been described as “stray” and “came creeping”, and the simile that compares the flowing of the blood to the “ants on track”, suggesting how slowly and torturous the death of the soldiers are. The fragment descriptions of the body parts come together to give us a wholesome picture of slow death of the soldiers in the war.
In the second stanza, Owen questioned the meaning of death. “Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking of great wings… r whether yet his thin and sodden head…. ” The two questions served as a direct comparison between the illusion that one is honored and blessed to die for his country and the reality and callousness of the war that they died miserably without any dignity in the war. The “great wings” is referred to the propaganda used by the authorities, the image of the wings appeared to be angelic and protective, but the fact that the soldiers are “shaded” by the wings implies that the truth of their death is covered by the ” fairy tale” stories told by the authorities.
The adjective “great” also emphasize how influence and convincing the authorities are. In “the thoughts that hung the stars”, the “thoughts” refer to the idea nurtured by the authorities that that dying for one’s country is good. However it is “high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making”, the “God” again refers to the high authorities, “making” means creation, and “pillow” is essential for people to sleep comfortably, this suggest how the authorities create and inculcate idealist beliefs in the soldiers to make them willing to sacrifice and fight in the war.
The imageries of the “clouds”, “rains”, “sleets of lead” (bullets) and “winds’ scimitars” suggest the cruelty and dangers the soldiers faced in the war. However, the idealism instilled by the authorities blinded them from seeing the real situations. The next “or whether… showed us the reality and physical states of the soldiers dying in the war. From “his thin and sodden head confuses… the low mould”, we can visualise how the bodies of the soldiers shrink overtime and how dirty and lifeless they are that we can not even differentiate their heads from the mud.
This also give us a sense of indignity of their death as their dead bodies are compared to the mud (with the emphasis of the “low”), an useless and unwanted material. Owen further describes “his hair being one with grey grass… autumns that are old”, all the “grey”, “autumns” and “old” suggest aging, and shows how the soldiers senesced prematurely in the war. Again, Owen employs a metaphor to compare their hair to the “grass” and “finished fields”, suggesting their insignificance and commonness of the dying soldiers, and also provide us with an unsightly scene of corpses lying all over on the battle fields.
The three questions followed (“who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? (who cares)”) shows the callousness and insensitivity of the authorities, the civilians and all the people who do not go to the war because they do not know anything about the desperate and hopeless situation of the soldiers in the battle. “Let it pass! ” implies a sense of acceptance, which perhaps, has been adopted mentally by all soldiers in the war.
However, the exclamation mark suggests a sense of desperation, showing their “no choice but to accept” situation since their fate is no longer determined by themselves in the war. The last two lines compare and contrast the situation between the “sleeping” people and people who are still “awake”. Ironically, Owen says it is “less tremulous, less cold” for the people who already died than the living people who are still fighting in the war, suggesting that the dead soldiers can at last truly be at rest while the living soldiers must awake to the never-ending tortures if the war.
The final sign “alas! ” mourns the sorrow on behalf of “we”-the living people, but at the same time, reinforce the sense of acceptance as suggested previously by the “Let it pass! ” The tone of the whole poem is dreary, sarcastic and disillusioned. With the use of ironies in showing the contrast between illusions and realities, the poem sounds critical and cynical. The intensive employment of images in describing dying soldiers and the war cause the tone to be dark and somber. Furthermore, the rhyme contributes to the dark mood as well.
In the first part of the poem, we notice that Owen uses mainly the consonance of “p” and “k”, as in the rhyme of words like “pack” and” back”, “waking” and “quaking”, “sleeping” and “leaping”. These two consonance first give rise a heavy tone to the poem, the “k” sounds relatively heavier than the “p”, which parallels to the idea of “death” being a “deeper sleep”. The heavy sounds also contribute to the fighting mood of the war which is still going on. In the later part of the poem, however, the consonance “o” and “u” occurs more frequently. “low mould”, “autume.. old”) As we can see from the “finished fields” which implies the war has over, it is possible to say that Owen uses these gloomy and mournfully sounded consonance to suggest the sorrow and the degradation of the soldiers through the war. The “a” and “e” consonance employed in the last few lines, coupled with the meaning of the words (that has been discussed earlier on) suggests a sense of acknowledgement and bitter acceptance of the soldiers’ lives.