The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen

The Send-Off is a unique poem in that it is both very short, and almost vaguely written: it is made up almost exclusively of full rhymes in for perfectly regular verses. It was written at Ripon, and revised at Scarborough, and it shows the after-math of a send-off party – the aftermath of the joy that follows conscripted men.

 

Form and Tone in The Send-Off

The Send-Off is an anti-war poem and is atypically dark, which was a trademark of Owen’s poetry. It is presented in four stanzas each of which is five lines long. Rhyme features heavily throughout the poem which has an ABAAB pattern and interestingly all of the “B-rhymes” are shorter lines. The rhyme pattern mixed with the sombre nature of The Send-Off gives it an almost jarring quality. I think this is deliberate to emphasise the futility in the hope of the people taken their love ones to the station before they are shipped off to war. It is told in the first person, passively. But actively addresses the reader in the final stanza which gives a very dramatic effect.

 

The Send-Off Analysis

First Stanza

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

In the first line the narrator offers our first contrast. The people are singing which is generally considered a positive and this stands in contrast to their environment described as a “darkening lane”. Another oxymoron is used as the trains members, ie the soldiers are said to look grimly gay. You can tell from the descriptions the narrator uses that these men are proud men. However the foreboding is evident as the stanza ends on the word dead. this is a classic example of the darkness that Wilfred Own is famed for. The narrator also uses the word wreathes to describe the flowers that women used to pin to the chests of their husbands. This is a very significant choice of words as the word wreath has obvious connotations surrounding death.

The opening of The Send-Off is hauntingly dark – light is fading, and the lanes are darkening. The use of the plural ‘lanes’ implies a sense of loss and labyrinthine confusion. Owen’s references to ‘lined the train with faces grimly gay’ shows that even their happiness is tempered by the oncoming misery of what awaits them; though they do not know it yet, their lives are going to be short and full of pain, and Owen sheds light on this by foreshadowing this reaction.

Foreshadowing plays an important role in The Send-Off. Through it, Owen creates two realities: the one of the present, where the men have not yet left, are still at the station, rejoicing with their families, and the one of the future, where the men are dead or dying and miserable. Take, for example, the use of the line ‘their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray’, and the two meanings that it holds up until that point: it is both a joyous occasion (soldiers bedecked with flowers by their siblings and families) as well as an image that brings about funeral associations. Death, to Owen, is never very far from life.

 

Second Stanza

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

What is interesting about his stanza is the way that the narrator gives a brief descriptor to each of the people mentioned in the stanza apart from the guard, the porters are dull and the tramp is casual. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that you might consider all tramps to be fairly casual! The line about missing them in the upland camp is probably more poignant then at first suggested. It probably means they will be missed because the likelihood is that they will not be returning from war. IE they will die. The winking of the guard almost gives the impression that a conspiracy is in place. This sense of foreboding and muted celebration all gives the feel that it is known a lot of these men won’t come back and it seems like everyone seems to be aware of this on some levels.

The sense of palpable secrecy and brooding darkness grows deeper as The Send-Off goes on. Here, a lamp ‘winks’ at the guard, they go ‘like wrongs hushed-up’; note the reference, as well to ‘they were not ourds: / we never heard to which front these were sent’. There is such an air of confusion, such a poignant feeling of tumult and unmatched chaos, and Owen’s soldiers are oblivious to it. Everyone, even the porter and the train and the lamp, know that where they are going is a miserable place, and yet they are powerless to stop their advance. Britain needs defenders, and the young are chosen to defend her, though it would be more accurate to say that the young volunteered themselves without knowing the full extent of what they would face in Southern France.

 

Third Stanza

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

The first line of this stanza only adds to the feeling that there is a conspiracy afoot, the phrase “hushed up” especially. It suggests that nobody wants to talk about the uncomfortable truth, that a lot of people die in war. In the second line the narrator says “They were not ours” this could mean that the troops that have been sent to war were not owned by their country. They are not owned by anybody. It could be a statement to emphasise their humanity, perhaps?

It then continues to refer to the serviceman as if they are faceless. Are the men are considered to be less then human? There is an undercurrent in this poem acknowledges this. It almost pours scorn on the women who bequeathed them flowers. The irony of adorning their men with flowers has already been highlighted in the first stanza but now the narrator chooses to question their motives for doing this? This is probably not the case. There is a strong suggestion this is meant sarcastically.

‘We never heard to which front these were sent’ gives an air of almost interchangeability. Soldiers are not individuals, in these poems, but lots of men, to be parcelled out to sections of France, and forgotten about until they return in either a coffin or with accolades.

 

Fourth Stanza

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

The first two lines of this stanza are a question that addresses the reader directly. This pulls a reader in and makes them really think about the poem and is particularly well used here. It is asking the rhetorical question of whether the men will have the same sense of “fan fare” when they return as they has when they left. Focusing on the return in this last stanza gives The Send-Off a nice semblance of coming full circle. But the scenes upon return bear a stark contrast to the suggested merriment in the first stanza.

As we can see the narrator uses the word “few” three times the last time preceded by “too” to emphasise that the amount of soldiers returning is drastically less then the amount that left in the first place. There is no drums, no singing and yelling. Just tired battle weary men “creeping back”. Perhaps the most poignant line in the poem is “Up half-known roads” It is known that Owen suffered from PTSD. Could it be that a portion of the soldiers that have returned are so depressed that they barely feel the belong anymore? This line could well suggest just that.

The future of Owen’s imagining comes to a horrific end in the last section of The Send-Off. Owen predicts that ‘a few, a few, too few for drums and yells / may creep back, silent, to still village wells / up half-known roads’. Thus, he has already marked a lot of soldiers for death. There is no escaping that reality that the soldiers that were sent are going to die, and they are going to die young.

However, perhaps even more brutally, Owen’s imaginings devises a future where not all the soldiers die. A few return, horribly alive, to their quiet villages. They are forever marked by what they went through, and thus they are going to be apart from the rest of society, no matter if they served their country or not. ‘Still village wells’ implies a deathly calm, a peacefulness that the soldiers have forgotten about; ‘up half-known roads’ show that they’ve forgotten even home. The soldiers who return, then, do not fully return, but they return in pieces, with fragmented minds, and dark memories.

 

Historical Background to The Send-Off

The original draft version of this ran as follows:

I
Down the deep, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the waiting train,
And filled its doors with faces grimly gay,
And heads & shoulders white with wreath & spray,
As men’s are, slain.

* * *

IV
Will they return, to beatings of great bells,
In wild train-loads?
– A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May walk back, silent, to their village wells,
Up half-known roads.

On the face of it The Send-Off is about waving people off as they go off to war but this belies the poem’s dark under-current which suggests that The Send-Off is actually about death caused by war. Flowers are mentioned twice in the poem and these act almost as a metaphor for the inevitable loss of life. This is clever as flowers, especially wreaths are often associated with death.

There is a sense of ambiguity in this poem caused by the actions of those not actually going to war. It seems to hint that everybody knows that not many will return from the war, but that this information is glossed over. Owen was very clever in his use of pronouns when describing the bystanders, to make us feel like we are responsible for keeping the truth silenced. This makes The Send-Off very evocative.


The music plays, a sea of hats and handkerchiefs waves above the crowd, the train with the civilian-clad reservists whistles and pulls away, and everyone in the crowd cheers, shouts and waves. The 149th will soon be leaving too. Elfriede jumps down from the railings. She is swallowed up by the throng and feels as if she is being crushed and smothered. She sees an old woman, eyes red with weeping, who is screaming in heart-rending tones: ‘Little Paul! Where is my little Paul? Let me at least see my son!’ Elfriede, standing there crushed in this jostling and jolting mass of backs and arms and bellies and legs, does not know who Paul is. Shaken, or possibly simply thankful to have something to focus on in this overwhelming confusion of images and sounds and emotions, Elfriede says a quick prayer: ‘Please God, protect this Paul and bring him back to the woman! Please God, please, please, please!’ She watches the soldiers march past and a little boy alongside her sticks his hand pleadingly through the cold bars of the iron railings: ‘Soldier, soldier, goodbye!’ One of the grey-uniformed men reaches out and shakes the hand: ‘Farewell, little brother!’ Everyone laughs, the band plays ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’ and some of the crowd sing along with it. A long train, decorated with flowers, puffs into Platform 1. At a call on the bugle the soldiers immediately begin to climb aboard to the sounds of oaths, jokes and commands. A soldier hurrying to catch up with the rest passes Elfriede as she stands there behind the railings. She plucks up courage and stretches out her hand to him, shyly mumbling, ‘Good luck!’ He looks at her, smiles and takes her hand as he passes: ‘Until we meet again, little girl!’

— From ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow’ by Peter Englund.

The above passage describes the air of jubilation and overwhelming pride that accompanied the beginning of the war. To fight for one’s country had not as of yet become a death sentence, and soldiers on both sides were honoured and inspired by the poets of their nations to go and bleed out their lives in France. By the start of 1915, the amount of soldiers joining up voluntarily had minimized by half, but the idea of the send-off was still immortalized in British minds. This is not the first poem that Owen has written about the phenomenon of the Send-Off. ‘Disabled’, another of his poems, takes into account the beautiful atmosphere of the gathered crowd coming to see off their young ones; however, ‘The Send-Off‘, though being named for the titular act, is far and away far darker than the act itself.

Wilfred Owen had a particular dislike of any and all forms of public affection, but it became a point of contention for him that the displays of emotion at send-offs and the likes were so patently performed, rather than felt; for after the soldiers were returned home, sometimes disabled, and other times mad, nobody would cheer for their return as they’d cheered for their departure. In ‘Disabled’, Owen plays about with the same dichotomy, though ‘The Send-Off‘s short, haunting lines carry Owen’s meaning in a far clearer manner.

 

About Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen was a British poet of Anglo-welsh descent. He is known for his poems based on his experiences during the First World War where he fought as a soldier. His poems are often dark and gritty and do not put a positive spin on war at all, this is perhaps unsurprising given his service record which includes some time on discharge suffering from PTSD (or shellshock as it was known at the time).

He died tragically young, aged just twenty five years old, just one week before the signing of the armistice that ended World War one but not before being granted a medal for his courage in battle. His poetry was influenced greatly by the great romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley and their influences can be seen, particularly in Owens’ early poems. Owen’s interest in poetry began at a very young age which is fortunate as if hadn’t become interested until later in life, we might never have been able to enjoy his poems.

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