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Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Wilfred Owen

Introduction and Text of Poem

Wilfred Owen's bitter Petrarchan sonnet, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," features two questions regarding the deaths of soldiers dying in war: In the octave, the speaker asks, what is the point of tolling death knells for people who "die as cattle"? His bitter question dehumanizes the heroes who give their lives in service to their country.

In the sestet, the speaker asks, "What candles may be held to speed them all?" This question further demonstrates the skewed attitude of one who has not been able to reconcile the spiritual with the material, especially regarding the death of soldiers.

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.

Reading of "Anthem for Doomed Youth"

Commentary

The speaker in Wilfred Owen's Italian sonnet dramatizes hatred of war by creating a deeply bitter irony, pitting religious ceremony against reality of the battlefield.

First Quatrain: Questioning Bells

The speaker poses his first question, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" Then he haughtily asserts his own answer. The answer is none; or at least, according to this speaker, these poor dehumanized beings do not deserve the solemnity of the ringing of church bells for their deaths. Of course, this speaker has been blinded by the horrors of war and remains unable to see that all of life has its horrors, and war in only one part of the totality of horrific acts that humankind perpetrates upon humankind.

It is doubtful that this speaker would claim that those who die at hands of murderers and thieves be denied a spiritual ceremony in tribute to their lives. Yet he suggests that the brave soldier has only the "monstrous anger of the guns," "stuttering rifles' rapid rattle" to "patter out their hasty orisons."

Second Quatrain: Ceremony as Mockery

The speaker atheistically declares that religious ceremonies held for those "who die as cattle" are mere "mockeries," and that they die without "prayer nor bells." The speaker laments that soldiers dying in battle have no spiritual succor, only the rough, rude paraphernalia of battle, "The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; / And bugles calling for them from sad shires."

Such a diminishment of the soul of a dying hero is beyond crass; the speaker is asserting a lie that has crawled out the belly of Satan. The apparent injustice that is done the soldier who dies in battle is accomplished in fact by this kind of art that seeks to startle while belittling those who deserve respect, honor, and admiration.

First Tercet: Debasing Heroes

The speaker shifts somewhat in the sestet. After having debased the fallen soldiers in the octave, the speaker affords a pittance of ceremony in the sestet. After the soldier has died on the battle field, unidentified and alone, back home the funeral without a body will be a formality: young boys will not hold candles for the soldier, "but in their eyes / Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes."

The speaker, who has quashed any belief in solemn ceremony, now mocks the tears of younger brothers by calling them "holy glimmers of good-byes." The speaker has made it quite clear that the sestet will be spoken with deep, bitter irony.

Second Tercet: Bitter Irony

Thus, the younger sisters will look pale and offer "flowers of the tenderness of patient minds." Again, the notion that these girls will have "patient minds" leaps out from the irony that the speaker has guaranteed. If the reader has missed the intention that the speaker means to disparage what he holds to be futile deaths, the final line assures that the missing piece will not remain ungrasped.

The custom of lowering the window-shades in the room where the deceased's body rests is replaced with the "slow dusk" which substitutes for "a drawing-down of blinds." Only the dusk draws the blind—representing a neutral, natural phenomenon, not the people—representing a deliberate, humble act of respect.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the deep irony in the poet's attitude toward war in the poem?

Answer: The speaker in Wilfred Owen's Italian sonnet dramatizes hatred of war by creating a deeply bitter irony, pitting religious ceremony against the reality of the battlefield.

Question: In Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," how does the speaker mock the dying soldiers?

Answer: The speaker atheistically declares that religious ceremonies held for those "who die as cattle" are mere "mockeries," and that they die without "prayer nor bells." The speaker laments that soldiers dying in battle have no spiritual succor, only the rough, rude paraphernalia of battle, "The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; / And bugles calling for them from sad shires."

Such a diminishment of the soul of a dying hero is beyond crass; the speaker is asserting a lie that has crawled out the belly of Satan. The apparent injustice that is done the soldier who dies in battle is accomplished in fact by this kind of art that seeks to startle while belittling those who deserve respect, honor, and admiration.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes