The Sentry - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in The Sentry

Owen is particularly sparing in his use of imagery in The Sentry. It is as if the narrative itself is enough. The images that Owen does create to gain our attention are brutal in their simplicity:

  • ‘Waterfalls of slime’ l.4 is hyperbole emphasising both its wetness and the velocity. Given that we usually associate waterfalls with clear water, the image almost seems an oxymoron
  • The successful shell is attributed with human intentionality and abilities: ‘one found our door .. snuffing the candles’ l.12-13
  • ‘Eyeballs, huge bulged like squids’ l.22 is the only simile Owen uses in this poem and consequently stands out (as the sentry’s eyeballs were protruded by the explosion). With the double ‘b’ there is a sense of rhythmic repetition, yet the lengthened sound of ‘huge-bulged’ indicates the vast inflation of the eyes, just as a squid bulges with water after being contracted. It is a grotesque picture in the confined space
  • The ‘shrieking air’ l.27 is a personification of the atmosphere which carries the destructive shells, an example of the pathetic fallacy whereby Nature shares in the despair of the cowering men
  • Finally, the strength and autonomy of Owen’s fear is personified as ‘dread’, which ‘hark[s] back’ to the sentry’s cries.


The wet and confinement of the dug-out symbolises the inescapable, nightmarish conditions of the Western front. The blood and spew exemplify the physical suffering of the men in the trenches.

However light and darkness are the key motifs in the poem. The ‘whizz bangs...snuffling the candles’ l.11 throw the place into darkness as they throw the sentry into blindness. The dramatic irony of the poem relies on the light which symbolises sight for the sentry. He cannot see the candle flame when it is held close to his blinded eyes, yet when all the lights have gone out he shouts that they are visible. Symbolically, the extinction of the lights in the dug-out represents the loss of hope in Owen and those like him. Whether the sentry is able to see or not, what is there worth noting in the nightmarish hell that humanity has created through warfare? The man’s blindness represents his self-deception about hope for the future.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Eyes and seeing are important symbols in The Sentry as they are in Strange Meeting and in Dulce et Decorum Est. Explore the significance of the eye symbolism in The Sentry.

Themes in The Sentry

Light and darkness

At the start of the Great War, Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary said:

The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

Just as light is a major symbol in The Sentry so it and its counterpart darkness are major themes in the poem. If light represents hope, then the lack of it represents the death of hope.

Chaos and hopelessness

This is a poem about the chaos as well as the hopelessness of war. One important theme in The Sentry is that of camaraderie; the sense of the soldiers fighting and suffering and surviving or dying together. In The Sentry Owen is writing about one private soldier, an ordinary man whose representative suffering haunted him in his dreams.

Investigating themes in The Sentry

  • How does Owen use the theme of light in The Sentry?
    • How does this theme add to the ‘pity of war’ which flows through Owen’s poetry?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.