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Symbol Analysis

Even before the shells drop and the world turns into a living nightmare, Owen concentrates on the ways that bodies get warped by the war. Emphasizing the ways in which men break under the stresses of war, our speaker creates a battle zone peopled by the walking dead.

  • Line 1: "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks" is a simile, which compares the men marching to beggars. Starting the poem off with an image of men "doubled" creates the possibility that the soldiers really have become two people: the men they were before the war and the creatures that they are now.
  • Line 2: More similes. This time the men are "Knock-kneed, coughing like hags." How do we know it's a simile? Well, it's a comparison that's created by using the word "like" to link the subject (the marching men) to another term (the hags).
  • Line 5: "Men marched asleep." Line five starts out with a stark image. People don't usually walk in their sleep, unless something is seriously wrong. Making abnormality the norm seems to be one of the major functions of this war.
  • Line 6: The parallel construction of the lines "All went lame; all blind;" emphasizes misery as a universal condition. No one escapes. No one.
  • Line 15: The speaker's reference to his "helpless sight" creates an almost paradoxical image: his sight works well. After all, he can see the image of the man dying – in fact, it's our speaker's all-to-active sight, which becomes the problem. What Owen is actually describing, however, is the helplessness of the speaker himself. If that's the case, then "sight" functions as a synecdoche, standing in for the speaker as a whole.
  • Line 18: The imagery created by describing "the white eyes writhing in [a soldier's] face" is horrendous. It's almost like the eyes have lives of their own: they've detached from the working of the body as a whole.
  • Lines 21-24: Owen is racking up some serious imagery points here. From gargling blood to cancer-like sores, we've got it all. This poem is a true house of horrors. We get to witness as a soldier's body breaks down entirely.

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