ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH by Wilfred Owen
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 for them from prayers or 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 n their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
NEED TO KNOW:
‘anthem’: a choral hymn or song
‘passing bells’: a church bell or other bell rung when someone has died
‘orisons’: prayers (spoken aloud)
‘bugles’: brass musical instruments like a small trumpet, traditionally used by fox-hunters or by soldiers to give signals to other huntsmen or soldiers
‘shires’: British counties where the soldiers’ homes were men from a particular county (e.g. Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Norfolk) were often grouped in regiments with their county’s name
‘candles’: traditionally carried by choirboys at church services, including funerals
‘speed’: send onward with good wishes people used to wish travellers ‘Godspeed’ (like ‘fare well’) as they began a journey
‘pallor’: paleness of face a sign of shock or grief
‘pall’: a cloth covering draped over a coffin or a tomb
‘drawing down of blinds’: it was (and in places still is) the custom to close the curtains of a house when someone who lived there had just died as both a mark of respect and a way of telling the neighbourhood what had happened
THE STORY OF THE POEM
Wilfred Owen was one of those young men ‘straight of limb, true of eye’ that Laurence Binyon’s poem is about. He was 21 when the First World War began. As he wrote:
‘War broke. And now the winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.’
Wilfred Owen had no intention of becoming a soldier as a career: he planned to be a poet. All the same, after training with the Artists’ Rifles he was placed in the Manchester Regiment, a battalion of professionals, and became an officer. In the bitterly cold winter of 1916-17 he experienced life in the trenches for the first time. His letters home gave some idea of the horrors the men had to endure. ‘Everything unnatural, broken, blasted…unburiable bodies outside the dugouts, still there a week later….’ No-Man’s Land under snow, Wilfred Owen wrote, was ‘like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness’.
The poems (and also the published letters) for which he would later be famous were written in the midst of war and from first-hand experience. He described the daily life of trench soldiers, ‘half-crazed by the buffeting of the high explosives’, suffering cruelly from thirst, lying in wet snow, often unable to stand or even crawl about because there was no cover. He also experienced shell-shock, and had several spells in hospital. At least in hospital he had time to think. Wilfred Owen’s reading of the teaching of Jesus convinced him that fighting was wrong. ‘Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed but do not kill….Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.’
But when he left hospital Wilfred Owen chose to return to the front line, out of loyalty to the soldiers in his command. At least, he thought, he could help them by keeping them out of unnecessary danger and by speaking up sympathetically on behalf of those who were suffering badly. He was killed just a week before political leaders brought the war to an end in November 1918.
Before he died Wilfred Owen had been planning to publish a book of poems. He drafted its famous Preface: ‘My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ He divided his poems into groups under separate headings such as ‘unnaturalness of weapons’, ‘inhumanity of war’, and ‘willingness of the old to sacrifice the young’ which are all still issues today. Another section was simply called ‘grief’, and that is the section in which he placed ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
WHAT DOES THE POEM SAY?
The sounds of the battlefield are all that accompany the soldier into death. In a peaceful world where most people leave life naturally there are simple rituals to mark the event: candles, flowers, the ringing of a bell, the murmuring of prayers, the singing of laments. Wilfred Owen makes the words he chooses match the sounds of war. For example, ‘The monstrous anger of the guns’ has a strong, booming sound. Rifle-fire is echoed in the word-sounds ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ which ‘patter out’ a ghastly travesty of recited prayer. Images are created by both the sound and the meaning of the words. Together they convey the horror of war and the longing, which everyone ought to be able to feel, for peace.
Like Laurence Binyon in ‘For the Fallen’, Wilfred Owen sees a link between the soldier’s brutal deaths and the wider world of nature. But for him the link is tender, not grandiose. The curtains closed by mourners to mark a death are echoed in nature every day: as darkness falls at dusk. The poetry is indeed in the pity: the pity that the last six lines evoke, using potent images and musical sounds that reach the reader’s inner eyes and ears.
This is, it hardly needs saying, an anti-war poem. Can anti-war poetry encourage people to become anti-war themselves? What does poetry have to do to set people thinking more clearly about war and how can it do it? Is ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ a poem only for the time it was written, or does it still have something to say? What sort of ‘anthems’ might we write for the ‘doomed youth’ who are killing and being killed in the world today?