Describing a group of new soldiers departing for the trenches by train, ‘The Send-Off’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s best poems. ‘The Send-Off’ muses upon the unknown fates of those young men who left for war. Do they now mock the women who gave them flowers to wish them goodwill as they left for the horrors of the Front?
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the things which make ‘The Send-Off’ a masterclass of poetry is the way in which Owen suggests the cracks already showing beneath the supposedly joyous and celebratory event of a group of soldiers being cheered on as they depart their homes and head for the western front. Take the first three lines of the poem: the soldiers are singing, implying happiness, but their faces are ‘grimly gay’, hinting at the worry and uncertainty lurking just beneath the surface. Similarly, these young men have been adorned with wreaths of white flowers: garlanded like war heroes and brave soldiers, or a foreshadowing of the dead soldiers’ funeral wreaths? And what does it mean to talk about the men’s breasts being ‘stuck’ with these wreaths, rather than ornamented or decorated?
‘The Send-Off’ also predicts that those soldiers who are lucky enough to return home alive will find their hometowns and villages to be very different (‘half-known’) from the ones they left: there will be no crowds of girls to greet them and cheer them as there was to see them off, and no great celebration of their heroism. And many who returned, like Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, would never be the same again, mentally scarred by shell-shock and PTSD and the horrors they had witnessed. As the great philosopher, Grandad from Only Fools and Horses, once put it, twisting the old slogan popular at the time: ‘They promised us “homes fit for heroes”. They gave us heroes fit for homes.’
Owen arranges ‘The Send-Off’ into what are effectively four five-line stanzas, rhyming abaab; but he includes a blank line between the third and fourth lines, effectively splitting up the five-line unit into two sections of three lines and two lines respectively.