Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

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Last Updated on September 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, also called an Italian sonnet. Its first eight lines, called an octave, have an ababcdcd rhyme scheme, and its final six lines, called a sestet, have an effegg rhyme scheme. This means that lines one and three rhyme (with the words cattle and rattle), represented by the letter a; next, lines two and four rhyme (with the words guns and orisons), represented by the letter b, and so on. The last two lines of the poem rhyme, which is atypical for an Italian sonnet, but which adds a sense of closure or finality that seems appropriate here, given that many soldiers and soldiers' families never received the closure of a funeral.

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The octave in a Petrarchan sonnet may pose a question or meditate on an idea, and then the sestet typically answers that question or speaks to—or perhaps resolves—that idea. Here, the octave shows what happens to those soldiers who die on the battlefield far from home. Rather than the "passing bells" from a church where a funeral might be held, they only get the sound of gunfire. Moreover, they die like cattle: too numerously and facelessly, even, to count. There are no prayers said over them, just the rifles' rattle. No choirs sing for them; these dead only get the sounds of wailing shells flying overhead as the war rages on. The last line of the octave transitions from a nameless European battlefield back to the towns in England, the "sad shires" where bugles play for those men from afar.

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The sestet responds to the subject of the octave by showing what is going on back at home, where the soldiers are from. The speaker says that the eyes of the boys, perhaps the brothers and sons who were too young to fight, are shining with tears for their lost loved ones; these tears serve as the soldiers' funeral candles. Girls left behind at home, perhaps daughters or girlfriends or sisters, have pale faces, and their paleness serves as the soldiers' funeral palls. Rather than funeral flowers, the soldiers are the recipients of tenderness and patience, as their loved ones await their homecoming—a day which may, in fact, never come.

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Latest answer posted April 2, 2011, 2:08 am (UTC)

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Owen uses sound devices to great effect in this poem as well. For example, the alliterative phrase "rifles' rapid rattle" sounds like guns firing, and words like "rattle" and "stuttering" are onomatopoetic, replicating the sounds they describe. The repetition of the word "choirs" and the alliterative words "shrill" and "shells" also duplicate the sound of mortar shells dropping from the sky. Finally, the alliterative d sound in the poem's final line, "And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds," creates a doomed feeling and a sense of finality.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

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.

This thought effects a transition to the theme of the sestet. There, the contrast is between the visible (rather than aural) aspects of the burial rite and the various signs of quiet grieving among the dead soldiers’ relations at home. Tears will glimmer in the eyes of boys instead of the flames of candles that, as altar boys, they would normally carry during a burial service; paleness on the brows of girls will stand in place of a white pall over a casket; and finally, private sorrowing—“tenderness” of mind, the “drawing-down of blinds” at dusk—will replace flowers in a church or on a grave.

By ending with a striking image of long, interior grieving, Owen completes the movement from satire to elegy. Whereas the octave expresses bitterness that these soldiers would pass from life “as cattle,” accorded only a terrible parody of the rites owed to human beings, the sestet expresses the realization that each dead soldier was an individual man, and each would be mourned for years by those who love him. These observances are more genuine and meaningful than the merely formal rites of burial and requiem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

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 personifies the weapons as ministers in a grotesque parody of the rites of burial, who bring “monstrous anger” to the rite, who “patter out” prayers, and who choir in “shrill, demented” wails. These satiric images express a kind of scornful disdain for the instruments of death, however, and the scene as a whole is one of chaos and horror in which the poet finds only the absence of dignity and solace, an absence underscored by the repetition of the words “no” and “nor” in lines 5 and 6.

The thought of “bugles” (line 8), associated with both the battlefield and the village green, brings about a dramatic change in tone and setting. The poet shifts his perspective here from the immediate present scene (“now”) to an imagined future set in England. The violence of the octave is replaced in the sestet by tranquillity: gentle images of quiet grieving framed in strictly regular meter and masculine rhymes. The word “held” in line 9 does double duty, meaning both “considered” and, literally, “held in hand,” the pun taking effect in the following line, which places the candles’ glimmers “not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes” (as tears).

Further wordplay occurs in line 12, which identifies “the pallor of girls’ brows” (pallor deriving from a Latin verb meaning “to pale”) with the coffin’s “pall” (deriving from the Latin for “cloak”). The mood throughout these lines is elegaic, their solemn lyricism enhanced by the effective use of conventional devices such as alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme (the repeated “sh” and hard g in line 11; the stressed plosives of “pallor,” “brows,” “be,” and “pall” in line 12; the repeated “er” of “their flowers” and “tender-” in line 13; and finally, the repeated stressed d of line 14).

While the sonnet is basically Petrarchan in form (divided into octave and sestet), Owen also incorporates the strong closure of the Shakespearean form of the sonnet by working rhyming couplets into the sestet. The final line brings the poem to an extraordinarily effective close: The long vowel in “slow” in place of a short syllable produces a series of stressed monosyllables—“each slow dusk”—that enact the slowness they describe. The hyphenated “drawing-down” momentarily restores the iambic rhythm and, by alliterating with “dusk,” inexorably carries the reader into the long, drawn-out vowel and palatal diphthong of the closing word “blinds” with a finality that underscores the hopelessness of death and grief.

The syntax of this final couplet implies that this closing of blinds, along with the “tenderness of patient minds,” stands in place of the flowers that would adorn a funeral or a grave, and flowers, like blinds, close as night falls. This private, patient, silent grieving stands in stark contrast to the noise and violence of the battlefield not only in mood but also in meaning: Instead of representing a poor parody of the rites of burial, this grieving transcends mere outward observance, replacing ritual with a deeply felt and lasting interior observance.

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