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Poetry CritiqueThe Send-Off

There are no linguistic experiments in 'The Send-Off; the rhymes are full, not half, and the groups of two and three lines form four perfect verses. It is quieter-toned than some others - being set in England, not the war zone - but makes its point with utter clarity.

The poem was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The troops have just come from a sending-off ceremony - cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers - and now they are being packed into trains for an unknown destination. From the beginning, the atmosphere seems sinister. The lanes are darkening and claustrophobic; the shed reminds us of execution sheds and slaughterhouses; the crowds have gone elsewhere and they are watched only by 'dull' porters and the uninspiring figure of a tramp. Traditionally flowers have a double significance - coloured for celebration, white for mourning. So the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter (like the heifer in Keats' 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'). Their departure is secret, 'like wrongs hushed-up', because the true nature of what is happening to them is being concealed.

Owen seems to have distrusted public emotion and felt that the highly-organised displays which have just ended can only obstruct true communication between people, and clear thought. Of the men who have been sent off, only a few will survive and each of them must find his own way back; the healing process needs silence and privacy. In a letter home, Owen had described how the Germans 'choked up the wells with farmyard refuse', and the image found its way into two poems, 'Strange Meeting', where blood is washed away by 'sweet wells', and this one. Village wells were a traditional meeting-place where travellers can find refreshment, and half-known roads, it is suggested, are better than the broad highway of public opinion

During and after the First World War, many people could not bear to watch a train moving away because this reminded them of a last meeting. Today, we think of trains being packed with victims for the concentration camps, other wrongs which were hushed up.

Copyright Merryn Williams 1993 and 1999

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