The Letter - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in The Letter


Owen relies so heavily on creating the voice of the letter writer that he doesn’t need to use many poetic devices. The metaphors that Owen does introduce reflect the man’s character. 

  • The soldier tells his wife that he is ‘in the pink’, an idiom which meant that he was in good health.
  • He describes to her the ‘Square headed ’uns’ referring to the almost square shaped helmets worn by the German troops.
  • In their quarrel over the piece of bread, he insults Jimmie as a ‘ruddy cow’, a beast. 


In The Letter Owen gives us a snapshot of war. It is possible to see every simple element and every terrible event as being symbolic of the greater horror.

The writer’s wife, mother and children symbolise all that the men are fighting for. Like his comrades, Bill and Jim, they are made familiar by their diminutive names, Nell and Bert. They are in fact worthy of the status which their full names convey, William and James, Eleanor and Albert, all names of British royalty.

The ‘iodine’ which was used on the front as a disinfectant to prevent gangrene in wounds is a symbol of the inadequacy of medicine to fight the terrible injuries sustained. Owen is suggesting that the man knows he will die so damns the uselessness of the iodine.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in The Letter

  • Owen uses the indirect image of a cow in this poem, foreshadowing the slaughter of the soldier. In Anthem for Doomed Youth and The Dead-Beat he also uses the metaphor of animals going to be butchered. Look up the quotations in each of the poems mentioned and try to memorise them (for the exam)
    • How effective are they as metaphors? Compare them with each other

Themes in The Letter

The way in which the men at the front protected their loved ones at home from the reality of war is one of the main themes in this poem. The friendships formed, the banter and cursing which was exchanged and affection expressed is a powerful theme. The camaraderie between the men was exceptional, as was the horror, pain and death, all themes which Owen is exploring in this poem.

In The Letter Owen creates a character with whom we sympathise and thereby conveys his own concern for the ‘men’ under his command. Owen’s own close contact with the Home front, through his many letters to his mother, is echoed in the concern of the letter’s writer.

Investigating themes in The Letter

  • Owen makes poetry out the horror of war. The poet W.B. Yeats dismissively summed up Owen’s style as ‘all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick’. How far would you agree with this statement regarding The Letter?
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