S.I.W. - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in S.I.W.


Owen creates the key image of S.I.W. when he states that nothing ‘Untrapped the wretch’ l.18. It is this feeling of never being able to escape which drives the boy soldier to take events into his own hands and to escape the horrors of war by killing himself.

Line by line Owen builds up images of the many things which trap a soldier in time of war:

  • Owen emphasises the power of the father’s voice by telling us twice of his views on war and fighting. One indirectly: ‘Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace,’ l.3 and then in direct speech l.23: ‘ “Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!” ’. It is likely that the assessment of those who commit S.I.W.s as ‘vile’ is that of Tim’s father, the stigma created cutting off another of the lad’s possible escape routes. The ‘So Father said’ of l.23 is the final trap which pushes his son to the edge.
  • His mother ‘whimpers’ and ‘frets’ l.5, putting pressure on the son to return home with a ‘nice, safe wound’ l.6.
  • His sisters, who ‘wish girls too could shoot’, subtly pressurise their brother to live up to their expectations of valour. 

These messages are endlessly reiterated in their weekly letters. The family wants to believe that their boy is safe and cheerful (happily smoking!), thereby pressurising him to lie about his whereabouts and real situation.

Meanwhile, the lad is trapped by the necessities of war: 

  • If he climbs out of his trench the hourly enemy bullet will find its target, so survival depends on remaining trapped and ‘teased’ by the nearness of death
  • As for a prisoner on Death Row, ‘death seemed still withheld’ yet ever in prospect whilst the boy cowered under being ‘machinally shelled’ l.19
  • Meanwhile there are more widespread threats as the ‘world’s Powers’ ‘run amok’ l.20 and at their command all the evils which horrify and yet do not destroy are let loose: ‘wounds, fever, trench foot, shock’ l.17.

Hell on earth

Medieval illustration of hellOwen is building up a picture which accords with the medieval picture of hell: a place of torment l.34, where death is always present but never finishes his work l.18; a place of trembling and sickness l.14-5; a place associated with deceit where Satan enjoys inflicting pain l.35-5; a region where fires keep burning but don’t fully consume l.33. In referring to ‘this world’s Powers’ l.20, Owen alludes to Paul’s teaching in the New Testament about the devil, in Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Owen’s original audience would recognise the irony of the fact that the next verse encourages Paul’s readers never to give up Ephesians 6:13:

Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

It is one more pressure that the lad cannot live up to. 

The ‘inescapable thrall’

Owen describes these pressures as creating an ‘inescapable thrall’ l.30. Thrall is a sort of enchantment, a word used by Keats in his poem La Belle Dame sans merci in which a beautiful woman traps a knight and destroys him.

  • The ‘infrangibly wired and blind trench wall’ - Owen is describing the actual physical trap dug in the earth which keeps the solider in the place of danger. The wire is infrangible - i.e. nothing can destroy it. It is inviolate.
  • ‘Curtained with fire, roofed in with .. fire’ l.32 - If the trench was not trap enough, it is covered by the ‘fire’ of bombardment, which incarcerates Tim even more claustrophobically
  • That the fire is ‘creeping’ and ‘slow grazing’ l.32-3 adds to the slow wait for what is inevitable, inflicting agony which does not (yet) kill. In this situation, ‘life’ is little better than ‘death’ – they both rile the boy.


Owen employs one powerful simile l.15-16:

         Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.

The boy was brave in the first place to join up. Owen compares the protective role he played as a soldier to a well-made sandbag designed to protect the troops from gun blast. Just as the sandbag disintegrates in the constant rain, allowing the sand to ‘leak out, so the soldier after endless bombardment can no longer retain his courage. The simile draws its imagery from the ubiquitous sandbags frequently destroyed by the infamous rain of the Western front.


Owen uses the common clichés of the war to symbolise some of his main themes:

  • ‘the Hun’ l.2 is the term used by those on the Home front to disparage the enemy; it makes them a homogenous entity, rather than individual Germans soldiers
  • A brave face l.2 Tim tries to live up to the common idiom to ‘put on a brave face’ until the point when he can no longer bear to
  • The mother’s desire for a nice safe wound l.6 sums up her complacency: she simply wants her son back and sees what was often referred to by soldiers as a ‘Blighty one’ as a safe way to achieve her desires
  • His bleeding cough l.26 suggests that the boy does not die instantly and so symbolises the pain and death and waste of life which angered Owen so much
  • The letter home l.37, symbolises the gulf between the reality of the experiences of the men on the front and the lack of awareness of many at home as to what it was like.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in S.I.W.

  • Owen has been described as being preoccupied with unpleasant detail and excessive emotion. Some of the images in S.I.W. are gruesome but do you feel that the emotion is ever excessive?
  • Do you agree that Owen is preoccupied with the details of war and suffering in S.I.W?
    • Explain your response

Themes in S.I.W.

Apart from the themes of the horrors of war and the indifference of those on the home front Owen introduces other challenging themes in S.I.W. The whole issue of self-inflicted wounds and the link with break-down or cowardice and the nature of courage make this a difficult poem. 

It is hard to determine just how Owen felt about the boy who could not cope and killed himself because he could no longer tolerate the intolerable. Owen is present in the poem. It is ‘our’ wire patrol who finds Tim. Although Owen says ‘we’ could do nothing, he does describe them wiping ‘his bleeding cough’. He does demonstrate an understanding of the boy’s plight, whether or not he agrees with the outcome. Owen explains that it was the only thing the boy soldier could do in response to ‘the reasoned crisis of his soul’ l.29. He is sent to his death as much by parental and authoritarian attitudes as by the wearing down of his resistance through the war of attrition in which he found himself.

Investigating themes in S.I.W.

  • Owen said that a war poet must tell the truth. S.I.W. is about both truth and lies. Remind yourself of the old lie in Dulce et Decorum Est. In what ways are these two poems similar?
  • Remind yourself of The Dead Beat. What does it have in common with S.I.W.?
  • Out of S.I.W.Dulce et Decorum Est and The Dead Beat, which poem do you think is the most sympathetic and why?
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