An Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’

Wilfred Owen was an English poet who lived between 1893 and 1918. He fought and died in World War I, which forms the background to most of his poems including ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Owen has a pessimistic view of war and this deep sense of pessimism plays into the general character of the Modern period and its literature. Another character of Modernist literature reflected in the poem is experimentation with forms and techniques. This is seen in how the author deploys the sonnet form to discourse a dreary subject matter like war and death rather than love. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ written in 1917 has fourteen lines rendered in two clearly demarcated stanzas of 8 and 6, which suggests its Petrarchan typification. As it is typical of all sonnets, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. The poem, however, deploys the rhyme scheme of the English sonnet which is: abab cdcd efef gg. This is another instance of modernist avant-garde. The poem is mostly written in end-stopped-lines.

In the poem, the poet captures the elegiac mood of World War I, as well as all the sordid realities it threw up. World War I was fought between 1914 and 1918 and claimed over 20 million lives, leaving about the same number in physical and mental wounds. Owen had a personal share in the two dimensions of the war tragedies – he was wounded physically and mentally, and he died in the war in 1918 just before the war ended.

In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the poet aims to pass across the idea that there is no heroism in warfare, only carnage in the form of destruction of young people’s lives and their dreams. The implication of destroying young people’s lives is that society loses its future strength, vision and prosperity, which young people represent.

The first stanza of the poem is an octave and goes: ‘What passing-bells for these who died 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.’

In the first stanza, the poem depicts the general mood of World War I, or any war for that matter. War is usually characterised by the wanton destruction of precious human lives, the disruption of peace and the unsettling of hitherto known values in society. This is exactly what is depicted in the poem. The first line of the poem is at once a rhetorical question and a simile. The expression ‘passing-bells’ refers to the bell rung immediately after someone has died. The simile in the first line where human lives are compared to those of cattle is meant to indicate how human lives have no worth in war time. It also demonstrates the senseless killing of people during World War I.

In the second line of the poem, however, we get to know that the ‘passing-bells’ mentioned in the first line is not the actual bell rung in church. There are no churches or time to worship the Creator in the war zone. The passing-bells actually refers to the sophisticated guns being deployed in the war, hence ‘Only the monstrous anger of the guns’. This line suggests personification and pathetic fallacy as the word ‘anger’ is a human attribute being ascribed to guns.

 The expression ‘monstrous’ is an epithet usually ascribed to beasts due to their ugly, violent and frightening character. Now it is being ascribed to guns, a product of the modern age of science and technology capable of ending human lives in seconds. Thus, this idea of monstrosity is indirectly being used to describe human beings, the ones who produced and deployed these dangerous weapons for the war. The irony of the modern age is seen in how science whose inventions should help improve human lives turn out to claim same, as it is the case with the war weapons. The guns then become a symbol of death and destruction in the poem; it is equally a symbol of the modern age, its scientific advancement and all its ironies.

The rest of the stanza is devoted to depicting the imagery associated with war and war environment and contrasting it with what could have been obtainable during peace time. The second and third lines of the first stanza constitute anaphora seen in the repetition of ‘Only’ at the beginning of each line. Line three has auditory imagery and alliteration as its dominant trope. The auditory imagery is seen in the expression ‘stuttering’ which mimics the firing of the machine guns while the alliteration in the line is seen in the expression ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’, whereby the alveolar trill /r/ is repeated in ‘rifles’ rapid rattle’. When put together, the entire expression captures the effect and the effectiveness of the guns in executing their inhuman mission.

In the fourth line, the word ‘patter’ refers to a light tapping sound used in its verb form as a phrasal verb with ‘out’ to infer the sudden demise of the soldiers shot by the guns. The entire line is euphemistic as it describes the death of the young soldiers while trying to say their last prayers, ‘hasty orisons’. Together with words like ‘stuttering’, ‘rattle’ and ‘bells’, ‘patter’ constitutes an onomatopoeia in the poem, all which suggest the heavy deployment of auditory imagery in the stanza of the poem. This is how the persona wants us to encounter the horrors of war; through the sense of hearing.

Once dead, the young soldiers have no part with the living and cannot hear the mockeries probably directed at them for their cowardice – ‘No mockeries now for them. . .’ The line could also mean that it matters no more if they are mocked because they have died. People are likely to take pity on them rather than mock them. Note the caesura in that fifth line in the form of semi-colon because it introduces a statement of huge semantic import in the poem: ‘no prayers nor bells’. Literally, this line suggests that since these young soldiers die in the battlefield, there is likely not going to be any religious rites for their interment compared to if they had died in peacetime and where there was no war regimentation. Metaphorically, however, the line captures the dominant ethos of the modern age – its irreverence towards religious faith. Divorced from this religious reference, the young soldiers’ death appears meaningless and absurd. The fact that there is no mourning for these dead soldiers portrays the inhumane and soulless character of the Modern age. Religious faith is either portrayed as absent in the poem or as the practice of a bygone era.

The choir that mourns the dead soldiers mentioned from line 6 requires interpretation, which the poet’s persona does in line 7. It is not the literal choir – a group of organised singers; rather it is ‘the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’. The expressions ‘shrill’ and ‘wailing’ constitute auditory imagery which is dominant in the poem. The expression ‘demented’ speaks of the wild and crazy character of the firepower deployed in the war. The expression ‘shells’ is the vehicle of the indirect metaphor in which choir is the tenor or the topic. Thus, the choir mentioned in the poem refers to shells – bombs. It is a dangerous euphemism ingeniously deployed by the poet to describe the replacement of religious values with inhumane ones in the Modern period. The expression ‘wailing shells’ then becomes an instance of pathetic fallacy.

The final line of the first stanza is the saddest as it depicts the final call of the dead soldiers to the world beyond. The word ‘bugles’ is a military instrument used to assemble soldiers, but in the context of the poem, it is used to refer to the final call to gather the souls of the dead soldiers in ‘sad shires’, another instance of pathetic fallacy, whereby shires mean a rural area or a county. It can metaphorically refer to the land of the dead, where the dead soldiers go to answer to their ‘Creator’s’ call. In sum, the poet deploys rhetorical question, personification, alliteration, anaphora, pathetic fallacy, auditory, visual and kinetic imagery, symbols and metaphors in the first stanza of the poem in describing the horrors of World War I, the pessimism that characterised the Modern age, as well as its lack of religious reverence.

The second and final stanza of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a sestet and reads: ‘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.’

Just like the first stanza, the second stanza begins with a rhetorical question. The word ‘candles’ is an instance of visual imagery and a symbol of funeral and death within the context of the poem. In the second line, we are told that these candles are held in the eyes, not in the hands of the surviving youths to bid their fallen comrades farewell. It is possible that the surviving youths themselves are wounded or maimed and so cannot carry the candles. They can only watch helplessly as their late comrades are given their final rites of departure from the world. There is a caesura in the second line in the form of a comma. The third line is a continuation of the first second and contains alliteration, visual imagery and euphemism as its dominant tropes. The expression ‘shall shine’ is an example of alliteration, seen in the repetition of the voiceless fricative sound in ‘shall’ and ‘shine’. The expression ‘glimmers’ is an instance of visual imagery while ‘goodbyes’ is a euphemism for death.

The fourth line speaks of how the wives, mothers or girlfriends of the departed youths mourn and suffer while wishing them the final farewell. The word ‘pallor’ means an unhealthy pale appearance and it is used to describe the eyebrows of the mourning girls. The entire line is a metaphor as the girls’ brows are compared to palls – a cloth spread over a coffin or a grave or any device used to carry the dead.

In the penultimate line, it is seen that the girls also carry flowers, another symbol of funeral and death within the context of the poem. This line too is a metaphor as the flowers are compared to ‘the tenderness of patient minds’. Flowers are usually used to mourn or remember the dead. The final line is a fitting closure for a poem about death and untimely departure from the world. Most of the imagery it deploys suggests closure or ending. An example is ‘dusk’ which is twilight, a moment in the evening that signals the end of the day. Another imagery that suggests closure or ending is captured in ‘drawing-down of blinds’, a dramatic gesture that brings every play to an end. But in this case, lives and a poem that describes the loss of these lives.

Through such poetic tropes as rhetorical question, alliteration, visual imagery, euphemism and caesura, the poet dramatises to us the idea of death through war as a catastrophic phenomenon that brings grief to the hearts of those alive and which inevitably brings all forms of relationships to an abrupt ending.

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