Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen
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Anthem for Doomed Youth Summary

Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a World War I poem by Wilfred Owen about the inhumane deaths of young English soldiers far from home.

  • The poem begins by using traditional, even ancient, elements of the funeral services these men won’t receive—like church bells, prayers, and choirs—to describe the sounds of guns, rifles, and mortar shells.
  • Because they die on the European continent, many English soldiers cannot have proper funerals, and those they left behind can only mourn without the rituals that make mourning more bearable. Those on the home front cannot even be sure that their loved ones will return.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Introduction 

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” is one of the best-known of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems. It was written in the fall of 1917 as Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow war poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon had enormous influence upon Owen’s work, causing it to become increasingly incisive and critical, whereas his earlier poetry had slightly romanticized the plight of soldiers. The poem, a modified sonnet, mourns the young men whose lives are lost in large-scale warfare.

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Plot Summary

Owen’s poem describes the fate of English soldiers who died in World War I: on the European continent, far from their homes, and in such great numbers that the remains of many were never returned. Instead, they were buried there, away from their families and without individual and personal funeral services.

The speaker begins by questioning what trappings of the typical funeral these soldiers will receive. Will church bells ring to mark the deaths of “these who die as cattle”? No, only the “monstrous anger of the guns.” There are no prayers said over them, either; the only prayer is the “stutter” of rifles, and the men simply “die as cattle,” so quickly and disrespectfully are the men slaughtered. No one will sing for them in mourning: the only “choirs” they receive are the “wailing” sounds the mortar shells make as they drop. Back at home, in the “sad shires” of England, bugles may call for them, feebly and far away. 

The poem’s speaker asks what candles will be held for these soldiers, what funeral services they will receive at home. These men will receive none—instead, the young boys left at home will cry, their eyes shining like candles over their lost fathers and older brothers. Likewise, the soldiers’ bodies will have no palls, because there will be no funerals; instead, the paleness and sorrow on the faces of the girls left behind will serve as their shrouds. These girls mourn their brothers, fathers, and friends—those who have gone off to fight and may never return. Finally, there will be no flowers, but only the tenderness offered by the patient minds of those on the home front who, full of hope, await the soldiers’ return, though that day may never come. At day’s end, each family lowers the blinds on their home, giving up the idea that their loved one will return today, and they will continue to do this, day after day, hoping again and again for a homecoming that, the poem implies, may never appear.

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