The Send-Off - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism 

Motif of roads and journeys in The Send-Off

The motif for this poem is that of journeys. The lanes and rail track are not only physical realities but, symbolically, the routes by which so many will travel to death. The eerie ‘close, darkening lanes’ l.1, foreshadowing the trenches, are lightened temporarily by the way in which the men ‘sang’ to keep up their spirits, but they signify a journey of no return. Notice that Owen describes them as ‘darkening’ not dark. The journey is beginning as the shadows of death, like night, are falling. The use of the present continuous indicates that this process will be maintained throughout the poem. 

The significance of singing and siding shed

Singing signifies the morale boosting efforts the men make, yet their ‘gay’ demeanour is betrayed by the adjective ‘grimly’. (Their very faces become masks , the tragicomic symbols of the Greek muses Thalia and Melpomene, the muses of laughter and weeping. The drama or action has begun.)

The inconsequence of the soldier’s initial destination, merely a ‘siding-shed’, indicates the way in which the men are considered unimportant, not much different to the ‘cattle’ of Anthem for Doomed Youth. That the men’s departure is witnessed only by the ‘Dull’ glance of some porters and a ‘casual’ tramp adds to the lack of attention paid to their sacrifice.

More on the use of the tramp image: In his note to this poem, Stallworthy suggests a significant symbolic status for the tramp, based on Owen’s reading of Thomas Grey’s Elegy in a Country Church Yard, a poem whose theme is the fleeting nature of love and life.   

Flowers in The Send-Off

The white flowers given by the women are symbolically described as ‘wreaths’ and ‘sprays’, which have funereal connotations. The soldiers’ breasts are ‘stuck’ with the blossoms as if bayoneted, an interpretation bolstered by the stress on ‘dead’ in l.5. Owen links these symbols of the celebration of valour (‘what women meant’) with an inevitably inglorious end that mocks the women’s ignorant attitudes.

The signal and the lamp

The nod of the signal marks the point of no return for the soldiers. The collocation of ‘nod’ and ‘wink’ is associated with duplicity and corruption, exemplified by the hushed up wrongs of the next line. This simile conveys a sense of guilt, as if someone in authority knows transportation of troops to the front is wrong and yet is part of greater conspiracy to cover the whole thing up. The irony of a ‘guard’ who should protect, yet who oversees the sending of men to their deaths, is easily overlooked. 

Great and few

The answer to the seemingly naive question as to whether the servicemen will return in hyperbolic ‘wild trainloads’, is an emphatic, meagre ‘few’. The ‘great bells’ (rung from churches in celebration), ‘drums’ (signifying military ceremony) and ‘yells’ of a rejoicing populace are absent; forgotten servicemen return merely to empty village squares (normally the central well or village pump would have been a hub of activity).

More on the significance of the village well: When Owen was living in Dunsden, the well on the village common was a place of meeting. The Old Testament story of Jacob and Rachel at the well Genesis 29:1-14 and in the New Testament account of Jesus and the woman of Samaria (John 4:4-15) may have been in Owen’s mind; the biblical symbolism of wells of living, healing water was a strong part of his cultural background. However, in a letter to his mother Owen described with horror how the Germans filled a village well with farm yard refuse, making the water undrinkable.    

Rather than marching they will ‘creep’ like a wounded animal crawling back to its den, in ‘silence’. This reflects not just the lack of drums and yells but the deep silence into which many soldiers fell, finding it impossible to communicate the horrors through which they had lived. That the roads they return on are now only ‘half-known’ demonstrates how the effect of war has been to alienate the survivor from the land for which he had fought. The familiarity of the past has been changed by a present hell to an unknown and uncertain future.

More on survivors of The Great War: To a man, almost all those returning from the front in 1918/19 rarely spoke of their experiences. Harry Patch, who survived the war and lived into his 100’s, didn’t speak of his experiences and losses until he was almost over 100 years old, in his book The Last Tommy.   

Investigating Imagery and symbolism in The Send-Off

  • In this poem every image or picture seems to have symbolic significance. Pick out an image in the poem and explore its importance.
  • Explore Owen’s use of personification in The Send-Off.
    • How does it add to our understanding of his views on war?
  • Explore your own ideas about lanes and roads. Think of the number of proverbial phrases to do with roads in the English language.
  • What part of the poem moves you most?
    • Try to say why, and show how Owen’s technique has given rise to this feeling.

Themes in The Send-Off

Unlike many of Owen’s war poems The Send-Off does not give graphic details of life at the front nor is its anti-war message overt; rather it leaves much to the imagination and emotional intelligence of the reader as it ends in silence.

The major themes of ‘Death’ and ‘War’ are clearly part of this poem but the more subtle themes of camaraderie and bravery among the soldiers is powerfully felt. The insensibility of those on the home front, the women who give flowers, and the ‘dull porters’ is highlighted. Owen does not shirk from the recognition that the servicemen ‘were not ours’; one of the tragedies of war is the failure to feel compassion for the suffering of the unknown.

Perhaps the most overpowering theme in the poem is the sense of loss and the futility of war with which the poem ends. The pity of war is Owen’s self-confessed theme:

My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.

The Send-Off communicates this pathos very effectively.

Investigating themes in The Send-Off

  • In the planned introduction to Owen’s book of war poems (which he never saw published), he wrote: ‘My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity’. Review The Send–Off using the following headings:
    • How Owen writes about the theme of war in The Send-Off.
    • How he makes us feel ‘the pity of war’ in this particular poem.
  • Remind yourself of the ending of Spring Offensive. What does it have in common with The Send-Off?
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