Anthem for Doomed Youth Themes
The main themes in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” are the horror of modern warfare, heroism on the home front, and the sacred in the everyday.
- The horror of modern warfare: Owen laments the young soldiers “who die as cattle” in trench warfare and do not receive fitting memorials for their sacrifice.
- Heroism on the home front: The care, patience, and courage of those waiting on the home front is sharply contrasted with the brutality of war.
- The sacred in the everyday: Ordinary actions of the families back at home constitute powerful mourning rituals in their own right.
The Horror of Modern Warfare
The horror and squalor of trench warfare is always a central theme of Wilfred Owen’s writing. As a child, Owen read many classical and medieval accounts of battles, in which the fighting appeared romantic. When he experienced combat for himself, Owen was at pains to stress that modern warfare was not at all like the heroic battles in the old stories. Though he shows awareness that ancient warfare was also horrific, the physical details of Owen’s poetry make it clear that his principal concern is with the peculiarly dehumanizing features of warfare in the twentieth century. In the battles he describes, the soldier seldom even sees his opponent. The enemy is reduced to a series of mechanical noises and explosions.
In the first line of “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen juxtaposes the quaint, old-fashioned idea of passing bells—that is, bells rung to mark a person’s death or funeral—with the butchery of modern warfare. The young men who are routinely slaughtered receive no more formal obsequies than cattle being killed for their meat. No one would hear the passing bells even if there were any, since their solemn sound would be drowned out by “the monstrous anger of the guns.” Owen’s poetry generally emphasizes the ear-splitting noise of the battlefield, making it clear that this is an integral part of the terror caused by the experience. The juxtaposition between the ancient ritual of passing bells and the modern mass butchery of World War I is repeated in Owen’s application of “orisons” (an archaic religious term meaning “prayers”) to the “rapid rattle” of the rifles, which stutter as they deal out death.
The principal contrast in the poem’s octave, or first eight lines, is between the respect with which a dead body is traditionally treated—a central theme in Western literature since Priam’s recovery of Hector’s corpse from Achilles in the Iliad—and the mass slaughter of modern warfare, which makes such honor impossible. The “choirs of wailing shells” are personified as “demented,” as they symbolize the insanity of a culture that has ceased to care about honoring the dead. Soldiers have always died in battle, but in the ancient poems, they died for glory, and their names were remembered forever. The horror of modern warfare lies not only in its peculiar destructiveness but also in its anonymity. It is left to those on the home front to provide fitting memorials for the dead.
Heroism on the Home Front
The term “home front” was coined during the First World War to express the idea that civilian activity in Britain was vital to the war effort and might be regarded as one of the fronts on which battles were fought. Siegfried Sassoon and some other war poets were contemptuous of the idea, contrasting the horror of the trenches with the comfortable lives enjoyed by those who could remain at home, but Wilfred Owen was more sympathetic to the notion of the home front and wrote movingly about the contributions made by noncombatants.
This theme appears in the last line of the octave, as Owen yokes together the “wailing shells” of the battlefield with a more sober and mournful tribute from the home front, the “bugles calling for them from sad shires.” Even before the theme is developed in the sestet, or final six lines, this evokes the image of parents, wives, children,...
(The entire section is 970 words.)