The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” asks what burial rites will be offered for the soldiers who die on the battlefields of World War I (1914-1918) and argues that, in place of a normal funeral, these men “who die as cattle” will receive, initially, a parody of funeral rites, enacted by the noise of guns, rifles, and “wailing shells,” and later the more authentic rites of mourning supplied by the enduring grief of family and friends at home. The poem thus begins in a mood of bitterness and irony, but as the focus shifts from the battlefield to the home front, from the immediate setting of mechanized warfare to the distant calm of civilian life, the mood shifts toward poignant sadness and regret.

The poem, a Petrarchian sonnet—an octave followed by a sestet—draws a sharp, satiric contrast between the peaceful sounds associated with the formal Anglo-Catholic burial rite and the “monstrous” and “demented” noises of modern warfare. The “anger” of the guns (the big guns used on the western front were so deafening they could frequently be heard and even felt in England) is the only “passing-bell” for these dead soldiers, the rapid fire of rifles the only “orisons” (prayers), the wail of shells the only choir music. The octave’s last line, however, mentions another “voice of mourning”: the bugles that call to them from “sad shires,” from the towns and villages of the English countryside.


(The entire section is 431 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s effect relies on the contrast between the actual scene on the war front described in the present tense in the first seven lines and the imagined scene on the home front described in the future tense in the last six lines, with line 8 effecting the transition. Unlike poets who wrote “patriotic” verses aiming to disguise the horrors of trench warfare, Owen insisted on telling the truth as he saw it in order to voice a protest against the war. The poem opens with the shocking image of the battlefield as a slaughterhouse where men die “as cattle”—the mention of “passing-bells” may even hint at cowbells, as though these men were stumbling as innocently to their deaths as were cows.

The scene might become simply gruesome and ugly, but Owen prevents this by focusing on the sounds of warfare (rather than the sights) in order to draw parallels between the rites of burial and the conditions of the front lines. Complicated patterns of sound in these first seven lines represent the noise and chaos of the front: lines 1 and 3 add an extra short syllable to the usual iambic pentameter, so that these lines end haltingly, stumbling to a close. The repetition of a stressed open vowel followed by the sound of the letter n in line 2 (“only,” “monstrous,” “anger,” “guns”) mimics the steady, regular thundering of the heavy guns, while the repetition of a vowel followed by the sound of the letter t in lines 3 and 4 (“stuttering,” “rattle,” “patter”) combined with the alliteration of “rifles’ rapid rattle” mimics the crack of gunfire.

The fact that the iambic pentameter of line 3 is violated by both the dactyl of “Only the” and the trochee of “stutter-,” along with the aforementioned extra syllable that ends the line, means that the line literally stutters, imitating the irregular staccato of rifle fire up and down the trenches. However, there is more to these lines than straightforward onomatopoeia: Owen...

(The entire section is 818 words.)