The poem was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The troops have just come from a sending-off ceremony – cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers – and now they are being packed into trains for an unknown destination. From the beginning, the atmosphere seems sinister. The lanes are darkening and claustrophobic; the shed reminds us of execution sheds and slaughterhouses; the crowds have gone elsewhere and they are watched only by ‘dull’ porters and the uninspiring figure of a tramp. Traditionally flowers have a double significance – coloured for celebration, white for mourning. So the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter (like the heifer in Keats' ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’). Their departure is secret, ‘like wrongs hushed-up’, because the true nature of what is happening to them is being concealed.
Owen seems to have distrusted public emotion and felt that the highly-organised displays which have just ended can only obstruct true communication between people, and clear thought. Of the men who have been sent off, only a few will survive and each of them must find his own way back; the healing process needs silence and privacy. In a letter home, Owen had described how the Germans ‘choked up the wells with farmyard refuse’, and the image found its way into two poems, ‘Strange Meeting’, where blood is washed away by ‘sweet wells’, and this one. Village wells were a traditional meeting-place where travellers can find refreshment, and half-known roads, it is suggested, are better than the broad highway of public opinion.
The poem is in four stanzas of five lines each. The lines are grouped into sets of three and two within each stanza. As is printed here, two of the stanzas are split again into three lines and then two lines.
There is a regular ABAAB rhyme scheme, all of which are full rhymes. There is also a pattern to the lengths of line: in each stanza the second and fifth line is shorter than the rest. Each of these shorter lines fall on the B rhyme, so they rhyme with each other. Some rhymes have powerful inpact, such as the first stanza, with its emphasis on “dead” despite the fact that the stanza is about the send-off.
Language and Imagery
A key image is of flowers given to soldiers by women to celebrate their bravery. ‘White’ flowers are traditionally symbols of mourning, which he picks up on here.
The final stanza contrasts the return of the soldiers with the send-off, emphasising the contrast between the ‘wild train-loads’ and the ‘silent’ return as they ‘creep back’. Owen is highlighting the fact that war means not celebration but death and suffering.
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