Spring Offensive - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Spring Offensive

In Spring Offensive Owen opens the poem with an ambiguous image:

Halted against the shade of a last hill

The sense of pastoral ease which this opening phrase creates can as easily be interpreted as a dark foreshadowing of the final horrors to come. To be ‘halted’ is a pleasure when desired but not so when enforced. ‘Against the shadow’ is desirable on a hot day after a long march but when coupled with an enforced halt it takes on the sinister overtones of death. A ‘last hill’ is even more unequivocal.


Crown of thornsOwen uses a series of closely related similes in Spring Offensive to illustrate the men’s condition and the moment of change when their resting world becomes a battle. Although summer soothes them it is ‘Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains’ l.10. Even as ‘They breathe like trees unstirred’ l.18 ‘the little word’ l.19 which will change their lives forever comes ‘like a cold gust’ in the very next line. As if nature is aware of the hell the men are about to enter, the brambles ‘clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands’. The image is reminiscent of the New Testament account of the daughters of Jerusalem mourning Christ as he ascended to his place of execution, wearing a crown of thorns (Luke 23:27-28, Mark 15:17). The soldiers look at the sun ‘like a friend with whom their love is done.’ Their relationship with nature and the all-powerful sun is about to be over.


Spring Offensive contains some powerful figurative images of nature:

  • ‘Summer oozed into their veins’ l.9 makes it seem like a soporific comfort
  • ‘Sky’s mysterious glass’ (glass being an archaic term for mirror) suggests personification in l.12 as does the priest-like ‘Buttercups’ which ‘blessed’ their boots with gold in l.15
  • The sun is personified in l.26 as a god-like provider on whose bounty (i.e. life giving gift) they are turning their backs (‘spurned’ l. 26)
  • ‘The whole sky burned with fury’ suggests another god-like personality whose anger is turned against the men l.29, as ancient Greeks once believed that thunder was the roar of Zeus
  • The ‘earth set sudden cups’ l.30 like vessels for libation offerings to some god (many pagan deities demanding the sacrifice of a living being or its blood) or the medieval apothecary’s practice of ‘cupping’ a patient (draining blood off into cups) as a means of curing illness.

Owen uses equally powerful metaphors to communicate the level of aggression the men experience in Spring Offensive:

  • Fury is conveyed in ‘hell’s upsurge’, throwing men up into the air l. 35
  • The image of ‘the world’s end’, which was established in line 6, re-emerges in line 36 as men ‘fell away past this world’s verge’.
  • The horror of combat is a rush ‘to enter hell’ l.40. The metaphor is extended as he describes those who will survive as ‘out-fiending all its fiends’

Investigating imagery in Spring Offensive

  • Spring Offensive is as much about the ‘few’ who survive as about the dead. Compare Owen’s presentation of the few ‘crawling back’ from the edge in this poem to the ‘few, too few’ who creep back in The Send Off.
  • Compare the survivors in Disabled and Mental Cases with the survivors in Spring Offensive


In this final completed poem Owen seems to use all the symbols he has employed in his previous poems:

  • Nature, spring and summer symbolising the life and potential of the men is a key motif which in the course of the poem is overturned by the horror of war with its emblems of blood and bombs
  • Religious symbols are provided by the blessings bestowed by the buttercups and the chalice-like receptacles the earth creates in which to catch the sacrificial blood of the slain
  • Heaven and hell are tokens of life and death, peace and pain. The very air itself symbolises life / breath
  • Eyes are one small but significant symbol: ‘the eyes’ l 23. Here the men lift their sights to the sun - the source of life. However the eyes ‘flare’ suggesting anger - in the reflected light from that ‘friend with whom their love is done’. The men can no longer be part of nature. They have spurned the ‘bounty’ of the sun (l.26) which is life itself, willingly sacrificing themselves and committing those ‘superhuman inhumanities’ l.42 which define them as being out of nature / unnatural
  • Silence: Owen’s final symbol is the powerful one of silence kept by ‘the few’ who are left.

Investigating symbolism in Spring Offensive

Themes in Spring Offensive


A major theme in Spring Offensive is one which was dear to Owen’s heart: that of the relationship between comrades-in–arms (camaraderie). It begins and ends this poem. The men sleep ‘carelessly’ on the nearest chest or knee because they trust each other so completely. The few who remain at the end of the poem are unable to speak of those they have lost. We recognise that greatest theme of all Owen’s war poetry: the pity.

War as hell

That war is hell is a clear theme in Spring Offensive. The power of nature and man’s place in nature is countered by man’s inhumanity to man. The sacrifice made by all, both those who died and those who survived, is clearly articulated. With the concept of sacrifice comes the theme of religion. Belief in God and loss of faith in the face of slaughter was a major concern for Owen. In Spring Offensive he acknowledges that there are some who believe that the dead are blessed. However the larger question is what those who survive think and feel and why they seem unable to comfort themselves with similar views.


The theme of silence is a new and potent theme in this last poem. The inability of those left behind to articulate their feeling about their lost comrades was something which remained true for veterans of WWI even into the twenty first century.


The theme of heroism, about which Owen felt so ambivalent and which Sassoon rejected, is understated but present. The theme of ‘long-famous glories’ resulting from the bravery of the men is balanced by the ‘immemorial shames’ which will also remain with them forever. 

There is a seam of guilt in this poem (as in so many others). However it is the pity of war which runs through every aspect of Spring Offensive. In Owen’s last completed poem, the final irony may be that the pity is too deep to be spoken.

Investigating themes in Spring Offensive

  • What does this poem say about Owen’s thoughts and feelings for his men?
  • The last line of the poem is the last question Owen poses about his main theme: the pity of war. Learn it by heart.
    • What do you think is the answer?
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