The poem has a very telling title, which reflects the speaker’s anger and mourning for the deaths of young soldiers sent to battle during the First World War. He bemoans that the soldiers who die or are dying are senselessly slaughtered like ‘cattle’ and that, in the heat of battle, they are not given the kind of funeral and send off that they deserve. As these soldiers die all that surrounds them are the sounds of warfare, far from any semblance of an orderly funeral service with prayers, choirs and bugles announcing their deaths. Furthermore, on the home front there are no ceremonies, candles nor acts of commemoration to bid them goodbye but solemn faces of boys and girls and those who silently think of them with ‘patient minds’ as they grieve these lives lost too soon.
Mini-Glossary – check this out for more
passing-bells – when a church would announce someone’s death by ringing their bells;
patter out – in this context it means to speak quickly;
orisons – prayers, here funeral prayers;
demented – mad/crazy;
bugles – a horn instrument sounded at at military funerals;
shires – regions of England often end with ‘shire’ and can be referred to as ‘the shires’ e.g. Lancashire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire;
pallor – paleness.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most renowned poets of the British First World War. His upbringing was humble: he was born in Shropshire, was a devout Christian on account of the strong relationship he had with his mother, and in his early adulthood worked as a lay assistant to a priest in the south of England.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, he working was as a private English and French language tutor in France and despite feeling unaffected by the conflict, he eventually gave in to the strong propaganda messages for young men to join the war efforts to fight for King and country.
He enlisted in the army in October 1915, and following training was fighting in the trenches from June 1916 onwards. He soon experienced the horrors of front line warfare. Injuries during battle and consequent psychological trauma led to him being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917.
This was where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated soldier and an already established anti-war poet, who became a strong influence on Owen’s poetry. Owen’s new concern was now to show ‘the pity of war’ and to warn the public that war was far from glorious and honourable as popularly suggested by many governments’ propaganda machines.
Owen eventually returned to the war front and died in battle on 4 November 1918, a week before the end of the First World War. A week later on 11th November 1918, while church bells were ringing all over the British Isles in order to signal Armistice Day as the end of the First World War, his parents were receiving news of his death. He was 26 years old – which strikes me as brutally ironic given the title and content of the poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’
If you fancy something a bit longer, this documentary is an hour all about Wilfred Owen.
The poem reads as a heartfelt criticism of war and institutions that perhaps paint it as an honorable thing for young men to get engage in (in another poem he explores this by mocking the phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – meaning it is sweet and honorable to die for ones country and a phrase that was often used to encourage men to join the war effort on the grounds). The brutality of war is depicted alongside anger directed at how governments used propaganda in order to encourage young men into army conscription, which would lead to their deaths as pawns or dispensable instruments of warfare.
Some commentators also suggest that the poem signals Owen’s rejection of his Christian faith, because the poem depicts a funeral ceremony that is re-enacted not in a church, but on the battlefield – thus perhaps suggesting the rejection of a loving God who is distant from the suffering of His creation. Also pervading the title and whole length of the poem is an angry and yet melancholic voice, which reflects grief and bereavement.
It’s impossible to discuss this poem without first getting to grips with the title: this is a song for young people whose fate will be death – in the physical sense because young men would die at war, and perhaps in a metaphorical sense, that experiencing the atrocities of warfare would rob them of their youth, innocence and sense of morality. While ‘anthem’ must hint at a celebration, the general tone of the title and the overall content is more solemn than jubilant.
The first section, the octave, begins with a question: what types of ‘passing bells’ will announce the death of soldiers who have been brutally killed like innocent lambs sent to the slaughter? The ensuing lines explain that only the nightmarish sounds of guns can take this role, and that only ‘stuttering rifles’ can issue any semblance of prayers – even so they are ‘hasty’ as there is no time to remember the dead in the heat of battle. There is no funeral ceremony, there are ‘no prayers, no bells’ no choral goodbyes but the maddening rainfall of shells and the distant sound of bugles calling out from dead soldiers’ homelands.
The sestet that follows again begins with a question: what candles can be used to mark a good send-off for these young dead soldiers? The lines which follow tell us that there will not be any real candles held in the hands of boys, but rather it will be their eyes which will show ‘holy glimmers of goodbyes’ and that instead of a pall to cover their coffins, only the ‘pallor of girls’ brows’ will fulfill this ceremonial mark of respect for their passing. The final lines tell us that there will be no flowers to accompany their coffins, only the ‘the tenderness of patient minds’ (perhaps the minds of those left at home who will be grieving for the young men for a long time) and that only ‘each slow dusk’ or coming of night will playthe traditional role of drawing the blinds in a room where a dead person lies, as a sign to the world and as a mark of respect.
Language and techniques
While the poem seems to be written from the perspective of a soldier on a battlefield, it is also plausible that this was Owen himself speaking directly to the reader through his poem. In the first eight lines (octave), the persona asks and answers a rhetorical question. Notice that the answer appears in the present tense and focuses almost exclusively on the sounds and frantic pace of war. Onomatopoeic phrases such as ‘stuttering rifles’, ‘rapid rattle’ and ‘wailing shells’ imitate the sounds on the battlefield. Owen therefore successfully uses onomatopoeia and sensory detail to recreate the chaotic and nightmarish reality of warfare with a vivid and cinematic sense of unfolding drama.
In the last six lines (sestet), another rhetorical question is asked. This time the answer appears in the future tense and focuses entirely on the sights of the mourning period and the agonizing slowness of its pace. This contrasts directly with the rapid pace of the octave as though to suggest that while soldiers may have swift and inhumane deaths, the grief suffered by their families was painfully slow and hard to shake off.
Throughout the poem, Owen uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony, as in the ‘rifles’ rapid rattle’ and ‘glimmers of good-byes’. Note that some alliterations occur subtly, as in the ‘st’ in ‘hasty’ that echoes the ‘st’ in ‘stuttering’ and in the ‘sh’ in ‘shrill’ that alliterates with the ‘sh’ in ‘shells’ and the ‘sh’ in shires. This use of rhythm and repetitive alliterative sounds create a haunting quality especially when the poem is read aloud, perhaps mirroring the trauma felt by soldiers who suffered from shell shock, as was the case with Wilfred Owen while he was admitted at Craiglockhart War Hospital.
In the octave, two examples of personification call attention to the terrifying rage and insanity of war: ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ (comparison of guns to angry humans) and ‘demented choirs of wailing shells’ (comparison of the shells to deranged humans). In the sestet, three metaphors center on the poignant suffering of the mourners at home. One metaphor compares the ‘holy glimmers’ in the eyes of boys to candles, and another compares the ‘pallor’ of the girls’ brows to the pall that covers the casket. In the third, the tenderness of patient minds becomes the flowers that adorn the soldiers’ graves. These metaphors are full of symbolism as they point to the heavy and yet muted sense of grief and longing felt by bereaved families.
See Cummings Study Guide for more on this.
Wilfred Owen presents this poem in the form of a sonnet, a form more typically associated with romantic themes and they are typically ordered in rhyming couplets, not only as a way of creating a lyrical rhythm, but to also explore themes of love, unity or harmony.
Ironically, Owen’s sonnet is not really about love: rather it is about the destructive power of war and lingering grief owing to the loss of young lives. The first eight lines (octave) are used to create images of battle and to suggest that the war front is like a churning butchery, while the last six lines (sestet) depict the impact of war on people, perhaps pointing towards the soldiers’ families who are left languishing in grief at the home front.
Therefore, instead of romanticizing war, Owen may have used the sonnet form as a way of showing his disapproval of war and perhaps to suggest that rather than keeping families together, war tears them apart. The rhyme scheme used shows an interesting order: the octave is ordered in alternate rhyming couplets (ABABCDCD) perhaps suggesting violent regularity of battle and death on the war front while the concluding sestet shows a disruption in the arrangement of the rhyming couplets (EFFEGG) – the distance between the two Es might be hinting at distance created between life and death, while the FF and the GG could reflect the lingering effect of grief as those still alive are irreconcilably separated from their loved ones who have died.
The structure of the poem reflects Owen’s view of the conscription of young men into war and presents the brutality of war as well as its impact on the home front. As an ‘entry’ into the poem, the title makes it clear that the poem is an elegy or a lament for the dead while also clearly conveying Owen’s view that young men were sent to their deaths when conscripting into war.
The opening octave presents a cacophony of sounds and images related to war and destruction – guns, rifles, shells – which are also likened to religious imagery associated with funeral ceremonies as though to suggest the immediacy of death and the lack of time to properly mourn the litany of deaths as they occur rapidly and successively on the battlefield. The tone, rhythm and euphony in the language switches from a rapid and passionate pace when describe the sounds of fighting into a gloomy and contemplative mood in line 8 which comments on the sounding of bugles sounding out from Britain’s ‘sad shires’.
In the sestet, Owen then develops the idea of mourning and the seemingly interminable effects of grief and bereavement. The religious imagery is further extended here, not so much to create the semblance of a funeral ceremony at home, but perhaps to hint that real grief can never be fully acknowledged by religious rituals and that it has long-lasting effects psychological effects on those who mourn.
As suggested by the Wilfred Owen Association: “forget about altar boys and candle bearers, says Owen. These have nothing to do with the real rites. Look in their eyes and in the ashen faces of their womenfolk to learn the truth about war.”
The references to flowers, dusk and the drawing of the blinds signal the slowing pace in the poem as well as reflecting a sense of finality associated with death and the laying to rest of the dead. As stated by the Wilfred Owen Association ‘The dusk is slow, for that is how time passes for those who mourn, and with the drawing down of blinds and the attendant sadness we may think of a house in Shrewsbury’s Monkmoor Road where at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a telegram was delivered that informed Wilfred Owen’s parents of his death just a week earlier’.
The tone of the poem is quite oratorical as you can almost imagine someone reciting the poem before an audience: the words are uttered with deep feeling and left to ring in pregnant pauses (especially where the rhetorical questions are used) while the audience is moved to a reflective silence about inhumanity of war and the need to commemorate the lost soldiers. The tone also expresses anger while at the same time creating a pervading sense of melancholy, thus mirroring how inescapable grief and bereavement can feel.