A commentary on a canonical war poem
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is probably, after ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen’s best-known poem. But like many well-known poems, it’s possible that we know it so well that we hardly really know it at all. In the following post, we offer a short analysis of Owen’s canonical war poem, and take a closer look at the language he employs.
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 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.
Start with the title of Owen’s poem: ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. The Oxford English Dictionary offers several different meanings for the word ‘anthem’, none of which is especially positive. ‘A rousing or uplifting popular song’: Owen’s poem may be popular, but it’s hardly uplifting. ‘A song officially adopted by a nation, school, or other body … typically used as an expression of identity and pride’: Owen’s poetry has definitely been adopted by schools around the country (and beyond his home country of the UK), but ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is not exactly about pride – at least, Owen sees little to be proud of in the slaughter of thousands of young men in the name of war. ‘A poem … esp. one of praise or gladness’: we may praise the young men who are giving their lives for a senseless war, but there’s little to be glad about here. Is ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, then, an ironic title? Not exactly, but then it does have a wry edge, as a brief summary of the poem’s contents will reveal.
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a sonnet divided into an octave (eight-line unit) and a sestet (a six-line unit). Although such a structure is usually associated with a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, here the rhyme scheme suggests the English or Shakespearean sonnet: ababcdcdeffegg. The one twist is in the third quatrain, which is rhymed effe, with enclosed rhymes, rather than the more usual efef. As with Owen’s powerful use of pararhyme in his other poems (perhaps most powerfully of all in the couplets of his poem ‘Strange Meeting’), such a twist on the established rhyme scheme is designed to wrong-foot us, and remind us that nothing in this war is as it seems: the old certainties have broken down.
The octave lists a number of noises associated with battle and warfare, contrasting them with the respectful funeral sounds: the ‘passing bells’ mournfully announcing someone’s death are mutated into the sounds of gunfire; the ‘rapid rattle’ of the ‘stuttering rifles’ constitutes the only prayers (i.e. ‘orisons’) these poor doomed soldiers will hear. (Picking up on the prayer theme which also lurks in the ‘anthem’ of the poem’s title, there may be a faint pun in ‘patter’ on ‘paternoster’, the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin: pater noster means ‘Our Father’. But this is a side-issue and need not detain us in our analysis of the poem.) ‘Stuttering rifles’ is a nice example of onomatopoeia – or rather, a horrific example of it – with the repeated ‘r’ and ‘t’ sounds evoking the sound of the rifle-fire. Note how the human voice has here been supplanted by the machinery of mechanised warfare: the rifles are described as ‘stuttering’, thus gesturing towards a monstrous form of anthropomorphism; ‘prayers’ and ‘orisons’, usually uttered by the human voice to God, are replaced by the sounds of the guns; the ‘choirs’ traditionally associated with church-music are not people singing, but the ‘shrill, demented’ sounds of the ‘wailing shells’ as they fly through the air and explode. Where more traditional human activity does remain, such as in the playing of bugles, this, too, has been perverted so that it is inextricably bound up with military action.
How interesting, then, that the mechanical twisting of religious acts of devotion and respect which we are presented with in the octave should, in the sestet, be turned on its head: Owen tells us that the most sincere ‘holy glimmer’ of respect for the dead soldiers is not found in the glimmer of candles (lighted as an act of remembrance) but in the brightly shining eyes of young boys (suggestive not only of the children made fatherless orphans by the war but also of their slightly older brothers, young boys of sixteen or seventeen who had gone off to fight in the war). The ultimate funeral pall is no sheet placed over the tombs of dead soldiers but the pale brows of the young girls the men left behind (first for war and then, tragically and more permanently, in death), girls who have lost their sweethearts and are pale with grief. The ‘tenderness of patient minds’ – ‘patient’ not only because those left at home had to wait patiently and agonisingly for news of their loved ones fighting at the front, but also in the sense of ‘suffering’ (the original meaning of ‘patient’) – will be more powerful a memorial for the dead men than the literal flowers placed on their graves. Even the world itself, and the natural order, seems to mourn: every time the light fades from the land and dusk falls, it will be as though the world has gone into mourning every night for the dead men (the act of drawing down the blinds of a home was a common way of showing yours was a house in mourning).
In the last analysis, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a clever sonnet but more than this, it’s an impassioned one: Wilfred Owen fills his poem with raw emotion which moves us in every line. The cleverness isn’t allowed to dominate, yet Owen’s use of mourning imagery and funeral conventions makes for a poem that not only makes us think, but moves us too.
If you found this commentary on ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ useful, you can discover more classic war poetry here.
Image: Wilfred Owen (author unknown: image taken from 1920 edition of Poems of Wilfred Owen), Wikimedia Commons.