Owen began THE SENTRY while he was receiving hospital treatment at Craiglockhart in 1917 and he continued it the following summer. Finally, it was completed in France that September. For its origins we go back to a letter to his mother dated 16th January 1917.
In the platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don't do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I'm afraid, blinded.
A very personal poem, therefore, the eighteen month gap between the experience and its translation into words suggesting an experience of great intensity.
The verse is basically iambic but trochees at significant points disturb the rhythm and effectively accentuate the unrest and tension, while the break at line 10 suggests that Owen is looking for his readers to pause and maybe gasp.
The parallels with DULCE ET DECORUM EST are quite noticeable. As in DULCE a young soldier suffers a tragic fate in horrifying circumstances and in Owen's presence. Remembering how the war preyed on Owen's mind to the extent that he experienced nightmares, a symptom of the condition for which he was treated at Craiglockhart -
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids'
Watch my dreams still….
I try not to remember these things now. (THE SENTRY)
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea I saw him drowning. (DULCE)
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, (THE SENTRY)
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime…… (DULCE)
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and flound'ring about (THE SENTRY)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-need, coughing like hags……(DULCE)
Those other wretches……(THE SENTRY)
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged, like squids', (THE SENTRY)
In both poems Owen shows us men under unendurable…