Hospital Barge - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Hospital Barge

In this sonnet Owen describes the slow progress of a barge bearing the dead and wounded as it negotiates a lock on the Somme canal. He describes a reader sitting on the bank watching and hearing the sound of the funnel as the barge drifts out of sight, reminding him of the agonising deaths of the mythic heroes of old, who were ferried to the afterlife by Merlin.

Commentary on Hospital Barge 

Hospital Barge is based on an incident in May 1917 at No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly, a village on the Somme Canal. Owen had suffered from concussion in France in March 1917 and was convalescing. He wrote home:

We are by a Canal much used by the Army to bring up supplies and take back the wounded to Amiens. It looks funny to see a Sergeant Major commanding a Tug, and a Corporal at the helm of the barge. A pleasant life for khaki.

One afternoon he took a barge trip to Cerisy. Again he describes this in a letter home:

I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another ‘inmate’. The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun. The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just as in the Winter, when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow, I fancied I must have died and been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.

The last sleep of Arthur by Edward Burne-JonesOwen was in Scarborough in 1917 when he re-read Tennyson’s poem about the death of King Arthur. The king was carried in a ‘dusky barge’ accompanied by ‘three queens with crowns of gold’, to ‘the island valley of Avalon’. 

More on The passing of Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

On the 8th December Owen completed the first draft of Hospital Barge. It was published in June 1918 in The Nation.

Investigating Hospital Barge

  • There are two poems which tell the story of the last hours of King Arthur which you might like to explore: the medieval text: Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory and The Passing of Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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