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Remains: Power and Conflict Analysis

The poem Remains was written by the British poet Simon Armitage and published in 2008. It is based on the real-life account of a British soldier who served in Iraq. The poem draws from interviews Armitage conducted with military personnel.

The soldier or protagonist in the poem is shown to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an anxiety condition common among ex-soldiers. It is caused by very stressful or frightening events. Someone with PTSD might experience flashbacks or nightmares in which they relive the traumatic event(s). They may also feel isolated, experience insomnia and have an intense sense of guilt.

Poem Summary

A soldier recalls an occasion when he and two others were sent to stop “looters raiding a bank.” They shot one of the looters who ran away, killing him. The soldier thought of the incident whenever he patrolled the street where the man died. When back home, he is haunted by flashbacks of the man’s death. He is filled with guilt, unsure whether the killing was morally justified.

The poem’s key message:

In war, soldiers’ actions can sometimes be morally ambiguous, leading to feelings of guilt and, potentially, PTSD.

Language

  • Armitage uses colloquial (conversational) language to give a sense of the narrator telling the story to another person. Starting the poem with “On another occasion” shows this is one of several stories being told. He uses informal language such as “legs it up the road” and “one of my mates goes by”.
  • Gory imagery is used to show the bank looter’s gruesome death. He is “sort of inside out” and, after he dies, one of the soldiers “tosses his guts back into his body”. This action makes the man seem more like a piece of meat than a human being. It shows how conflict can make people forget their sense of humanity.
  • The poem ends with the line “his bloody life in my bloody hands”. The word “bloody” has two meanings here. The soldier uses it as an expletive (swear word) to show his anger at himself for killing the man. However, it could also mean that he has blood on his hands, which is a symbol of guilt. We see this in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth goes mad with guilt over the killing of King Duncan and imagines that she has blood on her hands.

Structure

  • The first four stanzas tell the story of killing the bank robber. It is said casually, as if this was a typical event for a soldier.
  • The following four stanzas show the soldier’s guilt for the man’s death. He tries to come to terms with it and block out the memory but continues to be haunted by it.

Form

  • The poem is written in free verse (no consistent rhythm or meter) and enjambment to give the sense of the man’s speech.
  • It is written in the first person and past tense, which is a natural form for telling a personal story.
  • All the stanzas are quatrains (four lines) except for the final stanza, which contains two lines. This could emphasise the desperate guilt he expresses here.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
GuiltThe first indication of the man’s guilt is in the fifth stanza when he says the dead man’s “blood-shadow stays on the street”. This could literally mean the bloodstains that were left from the shooting. But, it also refers to the soldier’s memory of the incident.

Back home while on leave, his guilt consumes him. He dreams about the man’s death and continues to think about him even when he attempts to “flush him out” with drugs and alcohol. The soldier says the looter remains “here in my head when I close my eyes”, showing how traumatised and guilty he feels about his part in the man’s death.  
Unreliable memoryThe soldier questions his memory of the incident to determine whether the killing was justified. In the first stanza, he described the looter as “probably armed, possibly not”. He repeats this in the sixth stanza, hinting that he is doubting the likelihood of the man being armed. The prospect of having killed an unarmed man fills him with guilt and regret.
Reality of conflictThe dehumanisation that occurs in conflict is shown when a soldier “tosses” the looter’s “guts back into his body” and he’s “carted off in the back of the lorry”. This depiction highlights the clinical, detached manner in which casualties of war can sometimes be treated. It shines light on a deeper issue: often in the context of warfare, deaths can be viewed as mere statistics or unavoidable collateral, leading to a lack of recrimination from killing people in a war situation.

This lack of accountability isn’t always a result of individual coldness, but a systemic outcome of the very nature of war, where the usual moral and ethical codes can become blurred. However, this soldier (like many others) is traumatised by his experiences. He has flashbacks and self-medicates for his mental health problems with alcohol and drugs. Wars have a devastating effect on all involved, even those who survive.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“probably armed, possibly not”.The first time this is used, the soldier is saying it to justify killing the looter. The second time, it shows his worry and guilt that he might have killed an unarmed man.
“tosses his guts back into his body”.This gruesome imagery demonstrates the inhumanity that takes over in war situations. The looter’s corpse is treated more like a piece of meat than a human body.
“his bloody life in my bloody hands”.The soldier is filled with guilt and regret over killing the looter. The blood on his hands is a symbol of this guilt.

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