A worked example

For the sake of clarity, numbers and full sentences have been used. However, just use brief phrases for yourself, jotting ideas alongside each line.

The Send-off

Down (1) the close, darkening (2) lanes they sang (3) their way

To the siding-shed (3),

And lined the train with faces grimly gay (4).

Their breasts were stuck (5) all white with wreath and spray (6)
As men's are, dead. (7)

Dull porters watched them (8), and a casual tramp

Stood staring hard,

Sorry to miss them from the upland camp. (9)

Then, unmoved, (10) signals nodded (11), and a lamp
Winked to the guard. (12) 

So secretly, (13) like wrongs hushed-up (14), they went.

They were not ours: (15)

We never heard to which front these were sent. (16)

Nor there if they yet mock (17) what women (18) meant
Who gave them flowers. (19) 

Shall they return (20) to beatings of great bells (21)

In wild trainloads? (22)

A few, a few, (23) too few for drums and yells, (24)

May (25) creep back, (26) silent, (27) to still village wells (28)

Up half-known roads. (29)

Possible responses

  1. Owen takes the men ‘down’ from the uplands on the first stage of their journey which will ultimately take them ‘down’ into the trenches and death.
  2. The ‘close, darkening lanes’ foreshadow their deaths.
  3. The contrast of their morale boosting songs reflects the camaraderie between men, brothers in arms.
  4. Owen’s use of the oxymoron ‘grimly gay’ shows the tension in the soldiers, reflected in the juxtaposition of the darkness and the singing of the first line. It is further emphasised by the alliterative ‘g’.
  5. The verb ‘stuck’ strikes us as a careless, even violent action, a reminder of the bayonetting the men may experience in combat.
  6. The flowers are another portent of death. Wreaths and sprays of flowers are displays used at a funeral. White flowers were often associated with death.
  7. Owen highlights the doomed nature of the troops by inverting the usual word order to place the adjective ‘dead’ at the end of the last line of the first five line stanza.
  8. The porters who will remain on the Home front are ‘Dull’, i.e. insensible to the fortune of the troops.
  9. The tramp is more aware: he ‘stares hard’ and will be ‘sorry’ to miss them. Owen draws our attention to his sensibilities through the alliterative ‘s’.
  10. Like the dull porters, the inanimate signal is ‘unmoved’. There is a sense of no going back for the men.
  11. The personification of the signal as it ‘nodded’ adds to the sense that a mechanical war machine is taking over the fate of the men.
  12. The personification of the lamp that ‘winked’ adds to the sense of collusion by external powers and gives a sinister feel to the end of this stanza.
  13. The repetition of the sibilant ‘s’ in ‘so secretly’ serves to emphasise the underhand way in which these men’s lives will be sacrificed to the war.
  14. Owen’s simile ‘like wrongs hushed up’ immediately follows, adding to the aura of conspiracy.
  15. The observer, Owen, begins to distance himself from this particular group of men as they disappear from view. ‘They were not ours’ echoes the uninterested responses of the porters, the unconcerned signal and the wider insensibility of those on the Home front. It also realistically captures the very human tendency to care about ‘ours’. Owen would expend his emotional energy on caring for his own platoon.
  16. Owen creates a sense that these men, like so many others, were swallowed up by the war never to be seen or heard of again.
  17. The positive send-off at the start of the poem is seen as a travesty.
  18. The women represent the misguided patriotism of those on the home front who have no concept of the horrors towards which they cheer these men.
  19. The rhyming of ‘flowers’ with ‘ours’ l.15 is in keeping with the full rhyme of the whole poem. Here the word ‘flowers’ lengths and fades, evoking a sense of loss.
  20. The speculative future tense in the question ‘Shall they return’ prepares the reader for the poignant answer and ending of the poem.
  21. The ‘beatings of great bells’ is a stark contrast to the low key send off and thus seems improbable. The ringing of bells symbolised victory in war – but it is unlikely that the few who survive will exalt in any sense of victory.
  22. The hyperbole of ‘wild train loads’ contrasts sharply with the train lined with ‘faces grimly gay’ of l.3.
  23. The repetition of ‘a few’ emphasises the waste and carnage of the war and adds to the sadness of loss.
  24. The long assonating vowel sounds of ‘too few’ add to the poignancy. By default too few alive suggests too many dead, rendering any celebration (‘drums and yells’) of their return inappropriate. 
  25. The answer to Owen’s speculative question is answered with the conditional verb ‘may’, suggesting uncertainty.
  26. ‘creep back’ suggests the absence of vigour and pride, and has connotations of a wounded creature returning to safety.
  27. In the absence of songs, bells, drums and yells, all that remains is silence, conveying the returning servicemen’s inability to recount the horrors and loss they had experienced.
  28. The stillness of the ‘village wells’ conveys how whole communities were ravaged by the deaths of their male population.
  29. The use of the phrase ‘half-remembered’ depicts how these men are so traumatised by war that even the familiarity of home has been wiped from their memories.

From notes to an answer

You have made your notes by beginning at the first line and going through to the end. This chronological approach may seem obvious but it makes sure that you don’t miss anything. However, when you begin your actual answer, you will probably not want to use a completely chronological approach.

  • When you go back to your question you might want to start with something which is really important but which comes at the end of the poem
  • It is always vital to show that you have a good sense of what is going on overall in the poem and what is being described
  • When you feel that you want to say something about a poetic device, for example rhyme schemes, ask yourself the question, ‘So what?’ If you can’t make a point about what it adds to the poem then don’t waste time just describing it
  • Do not simply list features of style. Just saying that a verse rhymes ab ab (for example) won’t get you any marks unless you can show how Owen uses this device to create a feeling or an effect in the poem.

Read the question carefully and address what it is specifically asking for. The examiner is looking to see how well you can apply what is in the poem to the question. S/he doesn’t want to know everything you know about Owen and his poetry. S/he is looking for how you select and apply your knowledge and understanding to answering the question. If material isn’t relevant, don’t include it!

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