Hospital Barge, by Wilfred Owen

29 March 2014

Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme,
A barge round old Cérisy slowly slewed.
Softly her engines down the current screwed,
And chuckled softly with contented hum,
Till fairy tinklings struck their croonings dumb.
The waters rumpling at the stern subdued;
The lock-gate took her bulging amplitude;
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum.

One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes
To watch her lessening westward quietly.
Then, as she neared the bend, her funnel screamed.
And that long lamentation made him wise
How unto Avalon, in agony,
Kings passed in the dark barge which Merlin dreamed.


A couple of weeks ago, I was walking by the canal near Kortrijk (Courtrai) on a glorious early Spring day, with barges occasionally swimming softly past. If there is one idea most oft-repeated about First World War literature, it’s that it enacted the end of high heroism, in the face of mechanised slaughter. It’s no surprise to find Owen comparing a scene to Arthurian legend, therefore, but this is perhaps a uniquely placid rendering of the contrast. The ideals of Arthurian legend now seem tremendously remote, whereas Owen knew them re-rendered only a few decades before by Tennyson and the like; after my recent stroll, the depiction of barges moving along sunlit canals in the early 20th century seems quaint, but is still something I can situate myself in relation to. Today has also been a sunny Saturday, and so reading this earlier on the terrace of a café – all too rare a pastime – Owen’s description of the barge’s slow progress fitted well with the slowly progressing day that I was enjoying. My day, however, has been mercifully free of lamentation.

[Read in The War Poems, by Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy; published by Chatto & Windus.]


One Response to “Hospital Barge, by Wilfred Owen”

  1. […] Owen and his focus on the dissonance between the ideals of war and the experience of war, something that […]

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