Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the preface that Owen sketched out for a planned volume of poems, he stated that he was not concerned with “Poetry”: “My subject is War, and the pity of war.” “Pity” is for Owen never condescending or detached: It suggests, rather, a deep feeling and love for the soldiers with whom he fought. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” reminds readers that each one of the millions who died in World War I was an individual, and though on the fields of France and Belgium they were slaughtered “like cattle,” each separate death brought with it immeasurable sadness and loss.

The poem has been read as a reply to Rupert Brooke’s 1914 sonnets, especially the two entitled “The Dead,” in which death in war is presented as something to be celebrated and even desired. Some readers have found sentimentality in Owen’s poem also, a retreat from the ugly truth of war to the piquant pleasures of mourning. However, the poem combines satire and elegy with remarkable economy and power and brings home to the reader the enormity of a tragedy that dragged on year after year. Owen, who had once planned to be a clergyman, represents the burial rites of the established Church as “mockeries” and imagines instead a private, nonconformist ritual of the heart and mind.

Owen worked on the poem while convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, and in September, 1917, he showed the poem to his fellow patient, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who recognized at once its exceptional merit. Sassoon, Owen wrote, suggested the title, and made other suggestions, such as the word “patient” in line 13 to replace “silent.” Whereas Sassoon’s poems (which Owen greatly admired) tended to be sharply satiric, Owen’s achieve a more complicated effect, one that utilizes satire but also foregrounds the suffering and sorrow of soldiers, the tragedy of the endless murder and suffering they helplessly inflicted on either side.