‘Inspection’ taps on the theme of blood. It is a recurring theme throughout most of Owen’s war poetry. In this poem, Owen presents a short conversation between a soldier and sergeant. Through this brief give and take, the soldier is accountable for answering the instructor concerning why there is a blood-stain on his uniform. This stain of blood is an important symbol in this piece. It is compared to “dirt” for the sake of cleanliness. Besides, the sergeant’s attitude reveals how soldiers thought and were treated during the First World War. Owen’s shocking description of such a mindset enlightens readers about war and its impact on a soldier’s mind.
‘Inspection’ takes place during a military parade. A private is singled out by Wilfred Owen, and a Sergeant, for having blood on his suit, although later he admits to Owen that the blood was his own.
The poem begins directly with the conversation between a soldier and Owen’s speaker. It seems he is the instructor of the parade. He is angry with a spot of blood on the soldier’s uniform. Suddenly, the sergeant comes into the conversation and rebukes him for the misbehavior. The offender is confined in a camp as punishment.
In the following stanzas, the poet features what the sergeant tells the speaker. He clarifies that blood is “dirt” to them. It hinders them from doing the main task they are entitled to do, which is spilling more blood. To do this task, they must be tidy enough, not bearing the stains of their past activities. Owen, pointing out that it is no excuse, is told by the soldier that the world itself doesn’t like them being so alive, and that true justice will occur when they are all dead.
‘You! What d’you mean by this?’ I rapped.
‘You dare come on parade like this?’
‘Please, sir, it’s-‘ ”Old yer mouth,’ the sergeant snapped.
‘I takes ‘is name, sir?’-‘Please, and then dismiss.’
‘Inspection’ only has three short stanzas, and the first one starts with these lines. Two voices exist within the first stanza of the poem, which Owen has illustrated throughout different language and tones. The first voice is that of Owen himself, later combined with the sergeant’s: authoritative and sharp, the use of the word ‘rapped’ is onomatopoeic in this regard, bringing to mind the hard-bitten way that Owen and the sergeant are talking to the soldier. The second voice, the soldier’s, is diminutive, respectful, and quiet: he doesn’t want to talk back to his superior officers, and he’s well aware of rank and doesn’t want to cause trouble.
Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,
For being ‘dirty on parade’.
He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot
Was blood, his own. ‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.
Nevertheless, Owen and the sergeant punish him by confining him to the camp. At a later point, Owen meets up again with the soldier, who informs him that the dirt that he had on his uniform ‘Was blood, his own.’ The use of blood to symbolize the sacrifice of men during the war is an important symbol in this poem, as it further emphasizes the brutality and the pointlessness of the First World War, a theme that is prevalent in almost all of Wilfred Owen’s poems.
Owen’s casual dismissal of the blood puts it down to the same level as dirt. Rather than ‘blood’, something precious, a symbol of the sacrifice that the man is making for his country, he sees it only as a sullying artifact, something that besmirches the imagery of the glory of war that propaganda and higher officers were meant to perpetuate.
‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’
In the final stanza of ‘Inspection,’ the soldier’s bitterness shines through his words. As Owen dismisses blood as dirt, he laughs, looks away, and then utters the lines quoted above. The soldier’s opinion is Owen’s own words, put into the mouth of a character. Owen scorns and hates the loss of life, and how casual it has become the trappings and the intricacies of army life that place the common soldier at the front, and the higher ranks at the back, safe behind the lines.
The pointlessness of war, and the horrific sacrifice that the soldiers are making, reverberate through the last two lines. There is no discussion of a better life, of glory or honor. A dead soldier is a dead soldier. The use of the term “white-washed” refers back to purity, but that purity can only be achieved throughout the complete loss of the soldier’s life.
For Owen, the system is irreversibly broken. The world has become a place where young men are sacrificed for a cause that, by that point, was no longer visible to many of the soldiers fighting the war. Through ‘Inspection,’ that much is made clear. The war that is in the background throughout all of Owen’s work is a battle without an end, something that is being fought, something that has become a lifestyle that Owen and his fellow soldiers cannot escape, no matter how bitterly they feel about it. The heavy bitterness throughout the poem, suffused in lines such as “the world is washing out its stains,” and “blood’s dirt,” shows quite how little glory there is to die for one’s country.
The use of overt Christian imagery – from sacrificial blood to the blood merging back into clay, to Field Marshal God – is one of the poem’s most impressive symbols. Ironically, the use of religious imagery juxtaposes the war with religion, and rather than providing a reason for it, the use of religion only pushes the pointlessness further.
Wilfred Owen was an officer in the British Army during the First World War. Growing up, he was heavily influenced by the Bible, which counts for the heavy presence of religious imagery in most of his poems, and in later years, he developed a fascination with poetry, particularly with John Keats’ poetry and the poems of P.B. Shelley. Throughout the majority of the war, Wilfred Owen fought on the front, and he brings forth several events of his service out in his poetry. He enlisted in the ‘Artists’ Rifles’ in 1915, and left for France on 29 December, held by the promise that the war would be over as quickly.
Great Britain was convinced that the war against Germany would be over by Christmas. In fact, it dragged on for four long years. Soldiers fought, lived, and breathed in the waterlogged, muddy, and rat-infested South of France, in dug-outs known as trenches, and every battle was a massacre for the British army, due to General Haigh’s old-fashioned fighting tactics. Shellshock became prevalent in the trenches, due to the constant bombardment of shells by the Germans, and in 1917, Owen himself was hospitalized in Craiglockhart, where he met Siegfried Sassoon and penned the bulk of Sassoon’s war poetry.
The main theme of Owen’s ‘Inspection’ is blood. It refers to the bloodshed during a war. Besides, this poem also taps on the themes of horrors of war and soldiers’ brutality.
It is a paradoxical poem that is written in a conversational scheme. Owen grouped the content of this poem into three stanzas. The final stanza presents the main idea of the poem. This poem contains the ABAB rhyme scheme and it is mostly composed of the iambic meter.
This phrase refers to a shocking idea. According to the instructor, “Blood’s dirt”. It does not symbolize something terrible to them. Rather it is a symbol of dirt. They try to wash someone else’s blood to present themselves as neat and tidy to the world. Otherwise, the youth will abstain from the war after knowing the harsh reality of the battlefield.
The irony of this poem is that those who are fighting on the battlefield know the reality. Due to some official pressure, they cannot convey the truth to their fellow soldiers who joined the army recently. That’s why they clean the ironic spots of “blood” to whitewash the brutality of war with nationalism.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Inspection’.
- ‘The History of Red’ by Linda Hogan – The speaker of this poem sees the color “red” as the representation of life, death, creation, and all the horrors humanity inflicts upon itself. Read more poems of Linda Hogan.
- ‘Killers’ by Carl Sandburg – This poem decries the role of a group of men chosen to fight, kill, and die for a cause. Explore more Carl Sandburg poems.
- ‘To Any Dead Officer’ by Siegfried Sassoon – This poem concerns the gratuitous waste of life perpetuated and pushed forward by the British authorities in their bid to fight a war.
- ‘The Call’ by Robert Service – This poem is written about the war as it was unfolding across Europe. Read more Robert Service poems.