Spring 1917 held a few pleasant memories for Wilfred Owen, but it was almost certainly a poem of Tennyson’s that, the following December, brought back a recollection of one of them. Now based in Scarborough, he re-read the famous legend of the death of Arthur, how the king was borne in a "dusky barge" accompanied by "three queens with crowns of gold", bound for "the island valley of Avilion". So, on 8th December he completed the first draft of HOSPITAL BARGE, and on a proud occasion in June 1918 it became, along with FUTILITY, one of the few poems to be published in his lifetime (in THE NATION). It may not number among his finest, but in the context of his war experiences, HOSPITAL BARGE remains unique.
It focuses on an incident during his convalescence in May 1917 at No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly, a village on the Somme Canal (later No. 41 Stationary Hospital). This particular hot afternoon he and a fellow patient went on a barge trip towards Cerisy, an occasion he was to reconstruct in sonnet form, describing in the octet the slow progress of the barge, and in the sestet his reflections as by an observer on the bank.
He had convalesced at Gailly once before (after he had fallen down a well near Le Quesnoy). "We are by a Canal" he told sister Mary on 25th March, "much used by the Army." (It was used to bring up supplies and take back the wounded to Amiens). "It looks funny to see a Sergeant Major commanding a Tug, and a Corporal at the helm of the barge. A pleasant life for khaki. Why doesn’t Harold (his brother in the Navy) try it?" Six weeks later he was back, writing on 10th May :
I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another "inmate". The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun. The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied I must have died and been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.
Then, for a third time, in September 1918, back in France with the war nearing its end, we find him recording, "It was strange to wander again by the Canal where the Hospital Barge passed….."
What links all three occasions were emotions little known of in the war – fleeting feelings of peace.
It is instructive to read the letters he wrote either side of his 10th May account. Before, on 8th May, he had just read of the death of an old friend Walter Forrest, leading him to recall the demise at Savy Wood of brother officer H.Gaukroger "who lay not only near by but in various places round and about." After, on 14th May writing to brother Colin, his mind is back once again on the war, the letter containing a confusion of Biblical and apocalyptic allusions. What came between, then was something rare and salutary, a welcome pause amid the strain and stress of war. Aptly, the drift of the barge is westward, away that it, from the front.
In the poem Owen, as if wishing for an extension of the pleasure, holds the action to a slow pace. The metre is unhurried and rhyme scheme regular, avoiding that favourite Owen device, a pararhyme and its tendency to jolt or jar. The barge moves in a leisurely (and onomatopoeic) fashion.
Budging the Sluggard ripples of the Somme (1)
Thus the tempo is languid, inert almost, as
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum (8)
Along with the slack pace, the sound (at least in lines 1-10) is low. Not until the final four lines do intimations, reminders perhaps of not far distant conflict, occur with "screams from the funnel" (11), "long lamentations" (12) and the "agony" (13) intrinsic to the Arthur legend.
Otherwise the mood is of good humour as the engines
……..chuckled softly with contented hum (4)
and of peace –
One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes (9)
Even in Arthur’s tragic end, hope is implied as "the dark barge" in Tennyson’s (and Owen’s) imagination passes on its journey to Avalon, that paradise of Celtic mythology.
Only the scream and the lamentation disturb the harmony, as perhaps Owen remembers the past and fears the future in a world where an idyll like the present is no more than a brief intermission.
Three canals were to be part of Owen’s life. The canal at Uffington, outside Shrewsbury, where he and his brothers often went and which epitomised boyhood days. Then this, the Somme Canal, which gave him a rare occasion when he might temporarily forget the war. And finally the canal of which he was as yet unaware, the Sambre-Oise Canal alongside which one dark November morning, early, his life was to come to its end.
And from where, like King Arthur, to Avalon he went.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox , 2001