Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

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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.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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, and other people who knew the soldiers—and all of them united in grief. “Shire” is a word for “county” that was somewhat old-fashioned even when Owen used it, and it has strong connotations of traditional rural England,...

(This entire section contains 970 words.)

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with its village greens, churches, and graveyards.

The sestet provides a strong contrast to the “monstrous anger” of the martial images in the octave. On the home front, all is quiet and melancholy. Deaths are marked by “pallor of girls’ brows” and recalled in “the tenderness of patient minds.” There is a different type of courage in this fortitude: mental rather than physical, requiring acceptance rather than resistance. This is the note of quiet on which the poem ends, contrasting with the violence and insanity of its opening lines.

The Sacred in the Everyday

As one enters the English Faculty Library at the University of Oxford, there is a small collection of a few hundred books in a glass case, arranged in a somewhat haphazard manner, some lying on their sides, with poetry, novels, and history books mixed up together. This is the private library of Wilfred Owen, exactly as he left it in his bedroom at home before going to France, where he was killed in battle.

Although Owen could not have known what would happen to his books, it is evident from “Anthem for Doomed Youth” that he would have approved of the nature of this memorial. While the noises of war provide a disturbing (though somehow contextually appropriate) dirge for the dead, the real commemoration that honors their sacrifice is in the hearts and minds of those who knew them, in their everyday acts and thoughts.

Fittingly, then, the image that ends the poem is the “drawing-down of blinds” at dusk in the homes where the heroes once lived, and where they are now constantly remembered. The parents and wives of the soldiers would have drawn down the blinds every evening in any case. It is a simple, everyday task, part of shutting up the house against the night. Now, this simple action has acquired a symbolic significance as potent as any public memorial. The things that the families of the dead have always done now become rituals in memory of those they have lost, and ordinary objects take on an extraordinary significance, providing a poignant contrast to the mechanized slaughter of the modern battlefield.