Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Wilfred Owen's portrayal and attitude towards war in "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and the methods he uses to convey it


Wilfred Owen's portrayal of war in "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is somber and critical. He uses vivid imagery and stark contrasts to depict the brutal reality of war, highlighting the senseless loss of young lives. Owen employs methods such as similes, metaphors, and personification to convey his anti-war message, emphasizing the dehumanizing and tragic aspects of conflict.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the portrayal of war in "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen.

Owen saw the horror of World War I up close, fighting in it and losing his life in battle a week before the armistice. This poem is part of a series of anti-war poems he wrote near the end of his life in an attempt to communicate the horror of what the war really was like. In it, he uses imagery—description using the five senses of touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell—to undercut any notion of the fighting as a heroic endeavor.

Those who die, for example, do not get military funerals full of pomp and dignity. Instead, they "die as cattle" on the battlefield. No church bells ring for their deaths, and no prayers are said for them. They die without the civilized amenities that usually honor death. For example, the sounds that accompany their dying are barbarous. These include the "monstrous anger of the guns" and the "shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells."

Rather than having funerals, the many dead on the battlefield will only be remembered in the eyes and "pale brows" (indicating sadness) of the people left behind who loved them. Those at home will grieve for them, their grief symbolized in the poem by images of dusk and the "drawing-down of blinds." The poem punctures any idea that there is a noble sacrifice or purpose in the men's deaths. There is nothing elevating about this loss of life, no redemption to be wrested from it. It wasn't worth the price, and those at home can draw no comfort.

Owen, like many involved in the fighting, was angry that war was pictured as glorious and patriotic to the young recruits and to the people left back home. He wanted people to know what a pointless bloodbath it was in the hopes he could help end war for good.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Wilfred Owen's attitude towards war in 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and how is it conveyed?

Owen's aggressively anti-war poem uses the metaphor of a church service to frame the horrific scene of men dying, most likely in France, during World War I.

Instead of the sound of church bells summoning the faithful to church, the "passing bells" in the poem are the sounds of artillery fire, and these guns are killing the soldiers as if they are cattle.  During a church service, the orisons are prayers, but to Owen, the orisons consist of the "rapid rattle" of rifle fire.

In the world of battle, normal aspects of a religious service--prayers, bells, choirs--become mockeries, the "demented choirs of wailing shells."  Wilfred's use of the "bugles" has a much more sinister meaning than one would normally associate with a bugle call.  In this case, the bugles come from the soldiers' funeral services held in the "sad shires" in which they lived, and the dead are so numerous, their are simply not enough candles to light the number of funeral services.

The last few lines complete this sorry scene: the farewells to the fallen soldiers are reflected not by the candles but by the eyes; the covering usually on the casket is replaced by the blankness on the faces of the soldier's girl friends and lovers; and the flowers are replaced by the tender thoughts of those left behind.  The last line is especially sad because it describes the actions each night of those left behind--they draw the blinds down to shield the rest of the world from their sorrow at having lost a son, a brother, a father, a husband.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Wilfred Owen's attitude towards war in 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and how is it conveyed?

In "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Owen presents war as horrifying because it is dehumanizing and because it is a tragic waste of young life.

In the opening line, the speaker asks, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" The soldiers here are compared to cattle, implying that they die like animals. The comparison also implies that the deaths of the soldiers occur on a mass scale, just as animals die on a mass scale in abattoirs. In times of war, we accept the deaths of men just as much as we accept the deaths of livestock in times of peace.

The opening line also refers to "passing-bells," which are bells rung during funerals to signal the passing of a soul from its body. In the next line the speaker acknowledges that "Only the monstrous anger of the guns" marks the departing souls of these soldiers on the battlefields. In other words, these soldiers, who give their lives for their countries, are not afforded deaths befitting men but are instead sent to be slaughtered like animals.

The horror of life being wasted is conveyed throughout the poem. For example, the speaker uses words like "demented" and "monstrous" to describe the war, implying that the soldiers' deaths are not for any greater, noble cause but are rather for something that is "monstrous" and "demented." The soldiers are also referred to as "boys," suggesting that these soldiers are merely children. They have most of their lives still ahead of them, emphasizing the tragic, horrifying waste of life during the war.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Wilfred Owen's attitude towards war in 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and how is it conveyed?

The theme of Owen's sonnet presents the bitter irony of the terrible costs and brutal realities of warfare in contrast to the incapability of England's rituals to honor the fallen soldiers and alleviate the terrible suffering in warfare.

In his poem "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Wilfred Owen creates a formal poem which eulogizes the fallen soldiers who have no funeral ceremony given them. It is his sonnet that acts as an anthem, or sacred hymn composed to honor the soldiers who have fallen in the lonely fields. All that can be heard are the "wailing shells" and the "demented choirs of wailing shires."

In this sonnet, Owen expresses his poignant emotion for the soldiers who have lain down their lives in what seems a senselessly cruel war:

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,--
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells....

In this octave, Owen represents as "mockeries" the burial rites of the Church that do not include these fallen soldiers. For, there are no church bells nor any prayers--only the "demented choirs of wailing shells" and the sounds of the call to battle: the "stuttering" of rifles in rapid fire.

Having once planned to be a clergyman, Owen represents in the sestet the burial rites of the established Church as “mockeries” and imagines instead a private, nonconformist ritual of the "heart and patient minds." 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the poet convey his attitude towards war in "Anthem for Doomed Youth"?

Wilfred Owen conveys his anti-war attitude through the central metaphor around which the poem is organized. The poem asks how the young soldiers who died on the battlefields are being memorialized. The first line of the poem asks where the "passing-bells" are for the dead soldiers. "Passing-bells" are bells rung right after someone has died, indicating that it is time to say a prayer for the deceased. The rest of the poem answers that instead of passing-bells to commemorate the way in which the soldiers have sacrificed their lives, there are only the rattling of the guns and the explosion of shells. These images emphasize that the soldiers will not be commemorated, and, in what amounts to a travesty, the war only continues after their deaths.

In addition, Owen uses word choice and metaphors throughout the poem to emphasize his anti-war sentiment. For example, in the first line, he compares the dead soldiers to cattle in a simile. The use of the word "cattle" implies that the soldiers are being butchered and that their lives are worth very little. He later uses a metaphor to compare the sound of the shells to the sounds of a choir singing for the dead. The replacement of a choir with shells is a mockery of the sacrifice the soldiers have made. In the second stanza, he uses other metaphors, such as the pallor, or whiteness, of girls' brows when the deaths of the soldiers are announced. This whiteness stands in as the soldiers' pall, or the cloth spread over their coffin. Instead of having candles, the soldiers only have lights in their dead eyes. This series of metaphors emphasizes the futility of war and the way in which it degrades those who have died fighting it. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on