Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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