Anthem for a Doomed Youth - Wilfred Owen #
The title is ironic as an Anthem prepares us for a patriotic or religious song, yet this describes the lack of both. The word “doomed” with its hard “d” sounds coupled with the “oo” sound can be unnerving. The fact that it is “youth” that are doomed suggests that we are killing the flower of our generations.
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*
Context & Subject Matter #
This poem, was written while Owen was recovering from a war injury at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1917. While Owen is writing directly about WWI, his subject is the dehumanising effects of all wars. He describes in graphic terms the anonymous deaths of countless youth who die without recognition “like cattle” with only the mocking “shrill demented choirs of wailing shells” to mourn their loss. This poem evolved gradually over months and benefits greatly in the collaboration with Siegfried Sassoon.
II. Sound Effects #
Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.
We have already noted the word “doomed” with its hard “d” sounds coupled with the “oo” sounds creating an ominous effect.
The stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
This most famous line combines both onomatopoeia and the alliterative “r”. It is the endless, ceaseless and immediate noise that unnerves the men resulting in what was then termed shell shock, today better understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Syndrome). Patter and rattle have slight assonance, while both rapid and hasty suggest the lack of time for meaningful bereavement or grief.
Contrast that with the sound Kenneth Slessor uses in Beach Burial to describe similar sounds:
“Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire”
This a muffled distant sound (with sob evoking grief) documented by a war correspondent, not as in Owen an engaged participant.
Later Owen returns to the harsh discordant sounds with a touch of bathos.
After a series of alliterative negatives he gives us hope by referring to choirs:
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.
Both shrill and wailing use onomatopoeia while demented refers to the lack of rationality or sense behind the war. The bugles and bells were traditional signals for calling people to attention or announcing someone’s death.
Owen’s greatest technical innovation was the substitution of assonance or consonantal rhyme for full rhyme. This avoids the finality and assertion that the full rhyme seemed to give. ** (H.W. Piper, The beginnings of Modern Poetry)**
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns
The wanton waste of life as they died in their masses. It is estimated that up to 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead— one day at the Battle of the Somme.
The anonymity of most of the soldiers who died simply because of limited time and pressures for self-survival.
The brutality of modern war is reflected in the lack of dignity accorded to the dead soldiers – “they die like cattle”, demonstrating the lack of value of human life as it laments that the battle sounds and loneliness of war.
“If any question why we died,* *
* Tell them, because our fathers lied.” *Rudyard Kipling
IV. TECHNIQUE #
Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc
Owen adopts the form of a Sonnet; the most disciplined and shortest form of poetry usually reserved for the subject of love. However it does suit his purpose because it is full of passion – his love and empathy of his fallen comrades. The compression of thought and the brevity assists in getting a simple message across.
The rhyme patter is consistent; in the octave (first 8 lines) it is abab, cdcd, while in the sestet (last 6 lines) it is efefgg.
The main technique is one of contrast; the mourning rituals for civilians compared to soldiers on the battle field. When people died in pre-war English villages a bell would toll for them.
Here the bells have been replaced by: “the monstrous anger of the guns” , hardly a suitable substitute.
*Stuttering rifles rapid rattles *replace orisons (prayers)
Wailing shells replace choirs
Glimmers of good byes replace candles
Pallor of girls brows replace pall
Drawing down of blinds replace Sleeping in Trenches
The plight of war has dehumanised the passing of so many lives with great potential.
It should be noted that we have at least four draft copies of this poem and Owen had the assistance of Siegfried Sassoon and other poets in the final copy.
V. LANGUAGE: #
*Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases. *
The emotive language is forceful and evocative but never sentimental or maudlin.
Owen uses a mixture of soft sympathetic language with harsh negative pejoratives:
The most evocative and resonant scene is the “Drawing down of blinds” because of its stark contrast with what we know is in store for the soldiers each night.
Clave, sojourned, first born, spake, Lamb, burnt-offering, slay, lo! Angel, Heaven, lay not thy hand, Behold, Thicket, Ram of Pride Slew, seed (for sperm)
Fire and iron, Belts and straps, Parapets and trenches
From The Trenches: The Best Anzac Writing of World War One, Edited By Mark Dapin, examines the use of language to express a new reality.
Moreover this was war where the means of death dealing were more mechanised and lethal than they had ever been. Dapin calls the first part of his book “The Great Adventure”, as he succinctly traces the soon-obliterated enthusiasm when war was first declared. Those delusions are admonished by the poem with which the section opens - Walter Turner’s Death’s Men. These are its chilling last lines: “click, clack, click, clack, go Death’s trim men/ Across the autumn grass”. Following Turner up the line is Philip Schuler, an Age war correspondent who then joined the AIF. His Australia Answers the Call begins with that pseudo-chivalric language that Paul Fussell analysed in The Great War and Modern Memory: “young manhood”, “baptism of fire”, “thousands of braves”. The Great War killed off this rhetoric, as it would kill Schuler, at Messines in Belgium in 1917.
The more self-aware of the authors whom Dapin selects wrestle with the question - moral as well as stylistic - of what language can be found to register the horrors of war. Sometimes there was a resort to mocking euphemism - the naming of frontal assaults as “stunts”. For John Monash, a dry, descriptive mode seemed best: “the front line is not really a line at all, but a very complex and elaborate system of field works”. He writes also of those behind the front - field police, liaison officers with the French Military Mission, salvage corps and 200 girls in the laundries.
The favoured figurative device of Great War writing (indeed of much war literature in the century since) hearkened back to Homer. This is the simile. Official war correspondent Charles Bean wrote of “an occasional sniping shot, exactly like the crack of a cricket ball”. New Zealander Alexander Aitken likened a tank to “a pertinacious beetle”, while for Frederic Manning (whose 1929 novel The Middle Parts of Fortune Ernest Hemingway thought the finest about the war), “the drumming of the guns” was “as though a gale resounded overhead, piling up great waves of sound”.
By remaking the unfamiliar through the familiar, the horrible through the benign, simile allows the illusion of escape from war to the distant peaceful land left behind. But literary respite, like time spent away from the trenches, is only temporary. Dapin shows ways of reckoning with war and implicitly invites us to contrast them. We can set Walter Downing’s exultant account of the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918 - “the fierce low growl of tigers scenting blood” - with John Jacob’s account of advancing into battle: “We all got up and walked on as if we had suddenly got tired of lying there.”
Many consider Anthem for a Doomed Youth as Owen’s signature poem as he attempts to give civilians a glimpse of the reality of all war.