Hospital Barge - Language, tone and structure

Language in Hospital Barge

Owen’s use of language in Hospital Barge creates a sense of the heaviness and slowness of the barge as it negotiates a lock on the canal and waters of the river Somme:

  • Owen describes the barge ‘budging’ the water which is ‘sluggard’. Both words suggest an onomatopoeic heaviness and slowness. l.1. Owen maintains the short ‘u’ assonance throughout the octet with ‘chuckled’ and ‘hum’ l.4, ‘struck’ and ‘dumb’ l.5, ‘rumpling’ l.6, ‘bulging’ l.7 and ‘swum’ l.8
  • The barge ‘slowly slewed’ l.2. Owen’s use of alliteration slows the pace of the poem and he maintains this pace with further slow sibilants as the engine ‘screwed’ the water, l.3 which in turn rumpled at the ‘stern subdued’.l.6. (Screw in this context is a mechanical term referring to the type of displacement rotary engine that powers the barge.)
  • In line 5 ‘fairy tinklings’ struck the ‘croonings’ of the engine ‘dumb’, these low sounds adding to the quietness of the water’s ‘ripples’ l.1 and ‘gurgling’ l.8.
  • Finally Owen observes the barge ‘lessening westward’ l.10 i.e. growing smaller in the distance as it sails away. Its final impact on the senses is the funnel’s ‘long lamentation’ l. 12, a haunting noise whose length is conveyed by the long, languid ‘l’ sounds.


The mood of this poem is very different to most of Owen’s war poems. The barge moves lazily in a peaceful landscape. Indeed it seems totally benign, sailed merely by ‘fairies’ who ‘tinkle’ with the engine. It is a shock therefore when the true nature of human savagery is howled out by the funnel, reminding Owen of the ‘agony’ experienced by the wounded and dying.

Investigating language and tone in Hospital Barge

  • Hospital Barge is a very different poem to most of Owen’s war poems owing to its lack of gruesome detail. Make a list of the negative words and phrases he uses in the poem.
    • Make a list of the positive words and phrases
    • Compare the two lists of negative and positive words. Which sort dominate?

Structure and versification in Hospital Barge

The sonnet form allows Owen to describe the barge’s action and the scene in the octet and reflect on how the barge drifts away, leaving him with thoughts of Arthurian legends in the sestet.

The iambic pentameter is unhurried and aided by a regular abba abba cde cde rhyme-scheme. Owen only employs one pararhyme, linking the quiet ‘Somme’ to ‘hum’, ‘dumb’ and ‘swum’, but this hardly jars our expectations. Only in the final line does the use of two spondees (‘Kings passed’, ‘dark barge’) give sombre weight to the reality of the barge’s wounded human cargo.

Investigating structure and versification

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