Wilfred Owen‘s poem Inspection was drafted at military hospital Craiglockhart in August 1917, and completed in September, under the influence of wartime poet Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Owen writes about the loss and cheapness of life through war. Blood is a recurring theme throughout most of Owen’s war poetry, and it is the main theme through Inspection.
Inspection takes place during a military parade. A private is singled out by Owen, and a Sergeant, for having blood on his suit, although later he admits to Owen that the blood was his own. 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 judgment will occur when they are all dead.
The poem only has three short stanzas, and the first one starts with the following lines:
‘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.’
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: authoritive 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. 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 Owen’s poems.
‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.
Owen’s casual dismissal of the blood puts it down to the same level as of 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.
In the final stanza, the soldier’s bitterness shines through his words. As Owen dismisses blood as dirt, he laughs, looks away, and then says:
‘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’.
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 honour. 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.
Owen uses a simple ab-ab rhyme scheme to convey the message of the poem all the better, as a more complex rhyme scheme would have drawn attention away from the central message of the poem.
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, in particularly Keats and Shelly. 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 his war poetry.