Wilfred Owen – The Send-Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

 

There is a dark, deadly theme in this poem. The send-off is not a happy occasion. There is no celebration,  no ceremony in this send-off – maybe because it happens so often, maybe because the people of the town have no relationships with these soldiers from other places:  “They were not ours” is quite an isolated line and shows this lack of connection, whilst the mystery and secrecy of the whole business is emphasised in “We never heard to which front these were sent”. There is a sense of secrecy, of a hush-up, of a conspiracy that we are drawn in. “We never hear”. They go into their camps in France, anonymous fighters from all over the country, heading towards a dark future that will bring them back changed (if it brings them back at all).

The poet uses personification to create quite a sinister effect: “Then, unmoved, the signals nodded, and a lamp/Winked to the guard” – it makes it sound as though all the workings of the railway station are in some kind of conspiracy and in on some secret then the men are unaware of. The winking of the lamp could also refer to flickering light – which could be symbolic of flickering (dying) life?

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