Inspection - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Inspection

Blood, dirt and washing

The whole of Inspection is threaded through with the image of blood and dirt. The man is charged with being ‘dirty on parade’ and afterwards he refers to the stain as a ‘damned spot’. Owen uses this allusion to Lady Macbeth’s words in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth ambiguously:

  • The soldier curses the dirt which he was unable to remove. It was ‘damned’ because it was impossible to remove and frustrated him. It damned him as it also caused him to be punished
  • Owen, the officer, reports the speech to us. He is aware of the implications of guilt associated with the blood, which haunts Lady Macbeth as she tries to clean her hands while she sleep-walks. 

In Inspection blood and dirt are the same thing: according to army regulations they are both elements that soil the man’s uniform. The man is bitter as he acknowledges that, while blood should be seen as precious and a costly sacrifice, the army does indeed treat it (and those who offer it) as ‘dirt’. At a deeper level, Owen plays with the idea that the loss of blood equates to the loss of life and the literal and symbolic return of humans to the ‘clay’ from which the Bible asserts they were made.


The world is washing out its stains l.12

The soldier uses personification to illustrate his point about blood and dirt. The world is seen, like Lady Macbeth, to be struggling to get rid of ‘stains’ of which it is presumably guilty. The punitive world powers object to the ‘cheeks so red’ of the ‘Young’ l.13. However once the soldiers are dead they will be colourless. They will be white-washed by death in the way the army white-washed coal and other unsightly things in camp before an important inspection - the term ‘to white-wash’ implies a cover up. 


Symbolically, Owen uses the image of blood as a symbol for death and sacrifice. The idea of the world washing out its stains comes from the Christian symbolism of sinners being washed clean in the blood of Christ (see Big Ideas from the Bible > Blood).

The soldier ironically compares God to a Field Marshal, the top rank in the army, and the final judgement to a military parade when the whole human ‘race’ will be inspected and held accountable for its ‘stains’, particularly the way in which it has sacrificed its young.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Inspection

  • Young blood is an important symbol in Inspection. Look for references to youth / blood in Disabled and Anthem for Doomed Youth and compare the different ways in which Owen refers to it in all three poems.
    • What message does he convey through these references?

Themes in Inspection


Blood is used in Inspection as a metaphor for both life and death. It speaks of both sacrifice and guilt. According to Christian understanding, only Jesus, who shed his own blood for the sake of humankind, can wash away the sins and stains accumulated by humanity. However, if God (or his church) is aligned with the Field Marshal, head of a culpable army, who is left to cleanse and absolve the world’s guilt at killing so many men?

Guilt and judgement

In Inspection Owen deals with the routines of war but juxtaposes them with the horrors suffered and sacrifices made by those involved. Although Owen gives us a portrait of himself, he recognises his lack of sympathy, his inhumanity towards the man because of the strict orders under which the war makes him live. The theme of guilt is subtly suggested here, as it is with the reference to Lady Macbeth and the final judgement. This theme of judgement ranges from what is seen by the man as a petty fault to the final judgment which will be made both on the dead and those who were responsible for their dying.

Investigating themes in Inspection

  • Blood, sacrifice and guilt are the main themes in Inspection, as they are in many other of Owen’s poems. Compare this poem with the references to blood and sacrifice in Disabled
  • Guilt is a more subtle theme. How does Owen present it in this poem?
  • Remind yourself of The Send Off and ‘wrongs hushed up’ and the closing line of Mental Cases
    • How does the theme of guilt, upon which Owen touches in these poems, compare with the theme of guilt in Inspection?
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