Anthem for Doomed Youth
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 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.
Not all Year 11 students have engaged as well as they may have with the poetry and in this post I will look at Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. I would love students to look at Dawe and Achebe these holidays but for those who are staying with Owen here is some revision material.
As you know this is one of Owen’s most famous poems. In the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth Owen’s clear criticism of the slaughter of a generation of young men in World War 1 is arrestingly compressed.
One way to look at the contrasts and themes that the poem explores is to look at the title. An anthem is usually a song of praise, but this poem, which is has the solemn style of an anthem, is about the death of the thousands of doomed young men in WW1. The use of the word youth in the title adds to Owen’s theme of the pity of war. There is an anger in the opening of the poem which turns to melancholy. The first 8 lines (the octave) lament the horror of the loss of these young men “who die as cattle”. The simile comparing the soldiers’ deaths to the slaughter of animals is one the reader can relate to. The first section asks the question about how can we most appropriately bury those who died in war? The answer is in the sounds of battle. Owen’s use of alliteration and onomatopoeia in this section clearly create the sounds of battle.
Owen has full rhyme for the poem and he uses alliteration and echoes (e.g. pallor and pall) and onomatopoeia, strikingly in the repeated use of ‘r’ and ‘t’ in “stuttering rifles rapid rattle … patter”. The octave contrasts harshly with the softness of the sestet in sound and images. Prayers, church bells, and the choirs of a funeral service are juxtaposed with the sounds of war which drown them. They would be a mockery given the scale and futility of the killing: the first line asserts that strongly.
The sestet (the next 6 lines) moves away from the sounds of war to the stillness of the home front, where the men are being mourned by their loved ones. These men, by the nature of war, have been left to lonely graves away from home and denied a burial service attended by their family and loved ones. This section acknowledges their grief and shows empathy for their loss.
The poem has bitterness, as it examines the brutality of war, and poignancy, as it examines the grief of the soldiers’ loved ones.
When you write about the poem comment on the language. Here are a few ideas to think about. Note the pungency of “cattle” after “passing bells”. Note how the rhyming “guns” with “orisons” and “bells” with “shells” helps to blend the religious images with images of war. Look at “wailing” – it is appropriate because it is bothe literal and ironically metaphorical. Note the poignancy of “shires” in line 8 as it connects the battlefield with home.