Le Christianisme - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Le Christianisme

Le Christianisme is a poem about images. Christ, the Virgin and the saints are representations of a faith in varying states of destruction.

The image of Christ, representing love and sacrifice, reflects the state of many men at the front. He has been ‘hit’ (by a shell) and buried under rubble. To Owen, he has been reduced to nothing. In this, he shares in the sufferings of the men (whose lives are being destroyed by war), just as Christians believe was exemplified in his earthly life in the first century AD/CE. However, the burial of the statue may also serve as a metaphor for the annihilation of Owen’s faith, or symbolise that the ‘real’ message of Jesus has been swamped by the ‘rubbish’ and ‘rubble’ of established religion.

The saints, regarded as intermediaries to Christ on behalf of suffering humanity, are protected from the sounds of battle, buried in a cellar. Like the soldiers, they are arranged in ranks. However, Owen presents them as impotent and perhaps uncaring. This too might symbolise an established church which was oblivious to the suffering it exhorted young men to join. 

The figure of the Virgin is also ambiguous. Is she a symbol of hope and purity, being smiling and undamaged, or is her smile questionable? She seems to wait for ‘war to flatter her’ l.6. (Devotion to the cult of the Virgin had been the cause of many religious uprisings through the centuries.) Or should she be interpreted as being at one with the soldiers, who share her ‘tin hat’ halo? It is perhaps unsettling that this representation of purity and maternal love is as vulnerable as the soldiers to the ravages of war. 

Owen makes a play on words familiar to his generation from many church services: ‘The peace of God which passes all understanding be with you’ (Philippians 4:7). He replaces these words of comfort with the pun ‘a piece of hell’ which will eventually destroy the last remaining image too.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Le Christianisme

  • Owen uses the symbolic images of French Catholicism in Le Christianisme and also in At a Calvary near the Ancre. How does Owen’s use of image of the shelled Christ in At a Calvary near the Ancre compare with the Christ in Le Christianisme?
  • How does Owen’s use of image of the disciples in At a Calvary near the Ancre compare with the saints in Le Christianisme?
  • Owen creates powerful symbols in both Le Christianisme and At a Calvary near the Ancre. How do these symbols add to the pity of war which is so important in his poetry?

Themes in Le Christianisme

Despite the simplicity of the subject matter, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the poem regarding Owen's thoughts and feelings about Christianity. We know from other poems and from letters home that Owen found pure Christianity and pure patriotism incompatible. The destructive horror of the war is concentrated in Le Christianisme on the statues which once represented salvation. Is Owen saying that Christianity too is a victim of war?

Investigating themes in Le Christianisme

  • Is the theme of Le Christianisme about loss of faith or is that view too simplistic?
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