At a Calvary near the Ancre - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in At a Calvary near the Ancre

Owen uses the plaster or wooden image of the crucified Christ as a metaphor for those injured and dying in the war and the implicit message of his love towards others as a contrast to that of his official representatives. 


Christ at Calvary: The fact that the bombarded figure of Christ had also ‘lost a limb’ l.2 helps Owen’s identification of it with the suffering and sacrifice of men on the front line

The priest and the scribe: Owen uses the ‘priest’ and ‘scribe’ as symbols of authority. In the New Testament the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees hated Jesus and all he stood for. By implication the message of WWI churchmen (and the state which endorses them) is antithetical to true Christianity and therefore is evil

Golgotha: The setting of Christ’s sacrificial death was Golgotha or Calvary. ‘Golgotha’ l.5 becomes a symbol for the sacrifices made by men in the war where ‘many a priest’ l.5 (Owen is not saying all), who are ’flesh-marked by the beast’ l.7 (that is they are on the side of evil not good), preach hatred.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in At a Calvary near the Ancre

  • The imagery of the image of Christ is also used by Owen in Le Christianisme. Look at the way in which Owen uses the images of Christ, the saints and the Virgin in that poem
    • Compare his use of symbolism in At a Calvary and Le Christianisme

Themes in At a Calvary near the Ancre

Patriotism vs Christianity

The salient theme in At a Calvary is the tension that exists between Christianity and patriotism. Owen wrote: ‘Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.’


Owen explores a theme which recurs in much of his poetry - the insensitivity of those in authority to the sufferings of the ordinary man. To deny ‘the gentle Christ’, as did the priests in Christ's day, and as many were doing at the time, is indeed, Owen implies, doing the Devil's work.

Those in authority (like the scribes) are guilty of brushing aside ordinary people. The poem conveys Owen’s anger about the way in which politicians drip-feed the people patriotism and hatred. Owen maintains Christianity will not fit in with this approach.

Greater Love

Owen’s concluding theme in At a Calvary near the Ancre is of the ‘greater love’. Owen’s reference to the words of Christ:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13)

demonstrates his belief that love should overcome hatred. By using the image of the crucified Christ near the Ancre as a reminder of what the soldiers are suffering, Owen implies that they sacrifice themselves out of love for their fellow man, rather than being motivated by hatred for the enemy.

Investigating themes in At a Calvary near the Ancre

  • Owen’s belief in the love which motivated the men at the front, their camaraderie and sacrifice is an important theme in this poem. How does it compare with his treatment of this theme in Le Christianisme?
  • Compare the themes of At a Calvary with the themes of Greater Love
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