Hospital Barge - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Hospital Barge


The barge has a personality and life of its own. Like most boats, it is personified as female - a large lady who softly decreases the pressure in ‘her’ engines, chuckles gently, hums and croons. Her proportions are described as having a ‘bulging amplitude’. She sounds like a ‘grande dame’; she is gentle until, as she disappears from sight, her funnel ‘screamed’.


Owen uses the story of the passing of Arthur as a metaphor for the hospital barge as she sails away with her cargo of wounded and dying. Avalon is the lake isle ‘where falls not rain nor hail nor any snow’ (from Tennyson’s poem: The Passing of Arthur). It is a symbol of paradise; however this is only achieved after valiant death. The long lament of the barge brings to mind the real suffering of contemporary ‘kings’: the men who are wounded in battle and are taken away from the front in the hospital barge. Owen ends the poem ambiguously. Does he mean that the soldiers too will reach paradise?

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Arthur and Avalon are symbols of heroism and paradise. The latter is also symbolic of healing. Merlin suggests magic and mystery. How effective is this imagery in communicating Owen’s pity of war?
  • ‘The dark barge which Merlin dreamed’ l.14 is very different to Owen’s dreams in Dulce et Decorum EstThe Sentry and Strange Meeting. Compare Owen’s dreams in those poems with the one in Hospital Barge.

Themes in Hospital Barge

The mood of peace and tranquillity and humankind’s harmony with nature in this sonnet is rarely found in Owen’s other poems. The phrase ‘unto Avalon, in agony, / Kings passed’ (l.13-14) suggests that Owen sees the wounded in the same light as he sees the wounded English hero, King Arthur.

Investigating themes in Hospital Barge

  • In Hospital Barge Owen compares the wounded to the Romantic King Arthur who, legend said, would return to save England. However, Owen said his poetry was not about heroes. Can you reconcile this poem with that view?
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