Anthem for Doomed Youth
Written by Wilfred Owen during WW1, he was soldier who called up to fight on the Western Front. Was extremely anti-war, and wrote extensively about the inhumane and degrading conditions which the soldiers suffered during the war. Written between September and October 1917, when Owen was recuperating in a war hospital from an injury, much of the latter half of the poem is then dedicated to funeral rituals. Also comments on Owen’s rejection of religion during the war. Eventually in 1918, Owen was killed during the war.
Sonnet form, in the structure of a Petrarchan Sonnet, but the rhyme scheme of an English Sonnet. Sonnets are generally love poems, and this poem expresses Owen’s love for those people who are suffering during the war, the ‘doomed youth’ whom he writes about. The form chosen is ironic, and sonnets usually show a problem and then solve, whereas this poem simply talks about a unresolvable problem created by the war.
Title was suggested by Siegfried Sassoon who was in hospital at the same time as Owen. An ‘anthem’ is a song dedicated to someone to represent them, and so Owen sees this poem as a song representing the dying soldiers. Rhymes throughout the poem give a strong sense of lyricism, again making it song-like. ‘Anthem’ is also ironic as it often suggests triumph or determination, and this poem suggests neither. ‘Anthem’ could also relate to national anthems, suggesting their died for a thankless country. ‘Doomed youth’ suggests their deaths are inevitable, showing the hopelessness of war. Assonance of ‘doomed youth’ creating a strong heavy sound at the end of the line, like a tolling bell.
Line By Line Analysis
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Owen asks in the first line a rhetorical question, asking what funeral bells are heard for these men when they do to die. Die ‘as cattle’ suggest their worthlessness and their helplessness, being killed en masse. Suggests that during war soldiers become dehumanised, turning into little more than animals to be killed by the government. Rhythm of this line (and of much of the poem) is iambic pentameter, emulating the slow heartbeats of the men going to die, and also suggesting a slow plodding forwards, like the cattle moving inevitably towards their deaths. This gives the reader the sense of hopelessness.
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Instead of hearing funeral bells, the men can only hear guns of war firing. Guns are personified as angry, and ‘monstrous’. ‘Monstrous’ shows the horrific purposelessness of war, and the ‘anger’ the guns’ shows the way in which the men put their anger and emotion into the guns they fire.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Again Owen comments on the sound of gunfire, repeating ‘Only’ to emphasize the pain of the soldiers and the lack of usual funeral bells. These ‘rifles’ are now ‘stuttering’, as though lost for words, like the soldiers. The ‘rapidity’ of the rattle suggests the fast pace of the flying bullets, frantically being shot out by desperate. Alliteration is used to create a rapid and strong rhythm, reflecting the scene. Rapid, stuttering beat might represent a heartbeat in this moment. ‘Rattle’ creates a hollow and empty sound, mirroring the emptiness of meaning in this landscape.
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
Patter is ‘onomatopoeic’ for the sound of the guns, and the phrase ‘patter out’ also makes the sound seem very insignificant, like simply the rain falling on the ground. This shows the lack of importance of the soldiers and their deaths. The fact that their ‘hasty orisons’ are pattered out shows they are running out of time to say their prayers, creating a contrast between Owen’s sense that these men should be honoured and their hasty, unimportant deaths. This reflects Owen’s feeling that the prayers themselves are meaningless and will do nothing. This is emphasized in the next line were Owen calls the prayers ‘mockeries’, as though they simply devalue the horrors the men have lived through.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Again we have negations in these lines, emphasizing his lack of support for the war, as well as giving the reader a strong sense of what these men lack. Creates a very negative atmosphere and creates sympathy for the soldiers.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
Owen also notes that there are no voices of mourning (no-one to mourn for them) apart from choirs, which is itself quickly modified to show what these choirs actually are. Generally these choirs would be singing hymns in a funeral service, yet here the hymns become the choirs seen below.
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
‘Shells’ are bombs that are dropped on the men as they kill them, showing intense irony that these are the things which are their funeral choirs. Shrill suggests physical pain making the reader feel uncomfortable, whilst ‘demented’ shows the madness and pointlessness of war.
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
Owen then shows another side to the funeral choirs, the ‘bugles’ calling for the men. A bugle is a trumpet used to mourn those killed in war, which are calling from the homes of the men. Alliteration causes emphasizes on the sadness of the shires, created a sense of deep loss and mourning for the men who are cut off from those they love. Reflects the nature of the families being told of their deaths.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Candles would usually be used to symbolically remember the dead and speed them to heaven. Here, Owen asks what candles are being used to send these men to heaven. Much a gentler, less angry and more mournful tone is created in this stanza, filled with peaceful imagery like ‘candles’.
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
Instead of ‘candles’ being held for the dead, instead here the dying men simply have the reflections of war fires in their eyes to mourn them and speed them to heaven. Creates the image of dead men with their eyes still open, reflecting the chaos around them. Calling them ‘boys’ shows their innocence and youth, creating sympathy in the reader. ‘Holy’ is again religious, which is again ironic. ‘Glimmers’ also suggests a semantic fields of weak light, which suggests the fading light of the boys’ lives.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
A ‘pall’ is a a cloth spread over a body or a tomb, and here the pall for the boys is mirrored and created by the ‘pallor’ of girls’ brows. ‘Pallor’ is paleness, suggesting the girls who have just received the news of their deaths and are shocked and devastated. Note the beginning of an assonance which develops now until the end of the poem of the ‘brows’ sound, lengthens the sounds of the lines and creates a sound of mourning.
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
The funeral flowers for the men will instead be the simplicity of minds which are ‘patient’ for their return and the tenderness with which their families love them. Again creates sympathy and pathos for both the men and their families.
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The final line reflects the feeling of the long close of day, or the lives of the men which are slowly coming to an end. Note the slowness of death in this stanzas versus the quickness of it in the first, reflecting the change of tone from anger to mourning and pity. The action in this line suggests the closing of curtains by those who have stopped waiting for the men to come home, and also the closing of eyes (the eyes of the dead men.) Alliteration of ds increases slowness and heaviness and draws attention to the closing of the blinds.