W Wilfred Owen

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

As the First World War raged on to its completion, Wilfred Owen, the poem, spent the final days of the war incarcerated in Craiglockhart, suffering from an acute case of shellshock and trying to write through the trauma using poetry.

It marked a turning point in his career. Working with Siegfried Sassoon (read Sassoon’s poetry here), Wilfred Owen produced the majority of his writing while convalescing at Craiglockhart, and the poems that he wrote there remain among the most poignant of his pieces. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ was written from September to October 1917.

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

 

Summary of Anthem for Doomed Youth

Written in sonnet form, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ serves as a dual rejection: both of the brutality of war, and of religion. The first part of the poem takes place during a pitched battle, whereas the second part of the poem is far more abstract and happens outside the war, calling back to the idea of the people waiting at home to hear about their loved ones. It was Siegfried Sassoon who gave the poem the title ‘Anthem’. This poem also draws quite heavily on Wilfred Owen’s love of poetry.

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

First Stanza

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.

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ opens, as do many of Owen’s poems, with a note of righteous anger: what passing-bells for those who die as cattle? The use of the word ‘cattle’ in the opening line sets the tone and the mood for the rest of it – it dehumanizes the soldiers much in the same way that Owen sees the war dehumanizing the soldiers, bringing up imagery of violence and unnecessary slaughter.  Owen made no secret that he was a great critic of the war; his criticism of pro-war poets has been immortalized in poems such as Dulce et Decorum Est, and in letters where Wilfred Owen wrote home. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth,’ Owen makes no secret of the fact that he believes the war is a horrific waste of human life.

The first stanza of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ continues in the pattern of a pitched battle, as though it were being written during the Pushover the trenches. Owen notes the ‘monstrous anger’ of the guns, the ‘stuttering rifles’, and the ‘shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’. It’s a horrible world that Owen creates in those few lines, bringing forward the idea of complete chaos and madness, of an almost animalistic loss of control – but in the same paragraph, he also points out the near-reluctance of the soldiers fighting. At this point, a great deal of the British Army had lost faith in the war as a noble cause and was only fighting out of fear of court-martial, therefore the rifles stutter their ‘hasty orisons’. Orisons are a type of prayer, which further points out Owen’s lack of faith – he believes that war has overshadowed faith, that it has taken the place of belief. As he says in another poem, ‘we only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy’.

Ironically, the use of onomatopoeia for the guns and the shells humanizes war far more than its counterparts. War seems a living being when reading this poem; much more so than the soldiers, or the mourners in the second stanza, and the words used – ‘monstrous anger’, ‘stuttering’, ‘shrill demented choirs’ – bring forward the image of war as not only human, but alive, a great monster chewing up everything in its path, including the soldiers that poured out their blood into shell holes. The quiet nature of the second stanza, and the use of softened imagery, brings out, in sharp relief, the differences between war and normal life, which has ceased to be normal at all.

 

Second Stanza

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 good-byes.

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.

In the second stanza, Owen moves away from the war to speak about the people who have been affected by it: the civilians who mourn their lost brothers, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, the ones who wait for them to come home and wind up disappointed and miserable when they don’t. The acute loss of life that Owen witnessed in the war is made all the more poignant and heartbreaking in the second stanza, which, compared to the first, seems almost unnaturally still. He speaks about the futility of mourning the dead who have been lost so carelessly, and by making the mourners youthful, he draws further attention to the youthfulness of the soldiers themselves. Note the clever use of words like pallor most often associated with death or dying.

Owen also frames this second stanza in the dusk. This is to signify the end, which of course for many of the soldiers it was their end. The second stanza is also considerably shorter than the first. It contains only six lines compared to the first which contains nine. The meter is far more even in the second stanza as well. This is only subtly different but the net effect is while the first stanza creates a frenetic, disjointed feel the second is more reflective of a solemnity.

The final line – ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds‘ – highlights the inevitability and the quiet of the second stanza, the almost pattern-like manner of mourning that has now become a way of life. It normalizes the funeral and hints at the idea that this is not the first, second, nor last time that such mourning will be carried out.

Throughout ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ there are heavy allusions to a great variety of writers.

  • Lines 6 to 7 reference the poem ‘To Autumn‘, by John Keats (read more of Keats’ poems)
  • Lines 10-11 reference ‘The Wanderings of Oisin‘, a poem by William Butler Yeats (read more Yeats’ poetry)
  • Lines 10-13 also references ‘A New Heaven‘, a poem by Wilfred Owen himself.

 

Historical Background

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born at Plas Wilmont on the 18th of March, 1893. He remains one of the leading poets of the First World War, despite most of his works being published posthumously. He was a second lieutenant in the Manchester regiment, though shortly after, he fell into a shell hole and was blown sky-high by a trench mortar, spending several days next to the remains of a fellow officer. Soon afterward, he was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia and was sent to Craiglockhart, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. This was the point where Owen began to work on his poetry.

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Elise has been analysing poetry as part of the Poem Analysis team for neary 2 years, continually providing a great insight and understanding into poetry from the past and present.
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