Anthem For Doomed Youth
Discuss Anthem For Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, exploring the poems language and form. Also explore the previous three drafts of the poem, comparing and contrasting them with the final copy.
Anthem For Doomed Youth was written by Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Scotland to which he was sent deeply shellshocked from his experiences on the front line in France during the First World War. In his poem Disabled he draws on this experience:
a few sick years in institutes.
Anthem For Doomed Youth explores his past experience in battle and the suffering of his comrades. He draws on his growing knowledge of the atrocities of war.
Wilfred Owen 1893 -1918 is considered to be a major war poet. He served in, amongst others, the Manchester regiment despite his delicate health and was invalided home from France after five months with his nerves shattered. He was coincidently sent to the same hospital as Siegfried Sassoon upon whom he came to rely. Returning to battle at the Front, his letters to his mother reveal his inner struggle,
I came out in order to help these boys; directly, by leading them as well as an officer can: indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.
Towards the end he wrote,
my senses are charred: I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.
He was awarded the Military Cross for exceptional bravery in the field and was killed by machine gun fire in November 1918, just before the Armistice. He died before the book of poetry in which he planned to show
the subject of … War and the pity of War.
could be published.
Siegfried Sassoon completed Owen’s Collected Poems in 1920. They stand as a tragic memorial to his early death.
The poem is written as an English sonnet, comprising of fourteen lines with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first stanza is an octet and the second a sextet. This is important because Owen has used the sonnet form, usually having romantic content. The sonnet is also useful for conveying an argument because it can express feeling in a controlled manner. Anthem describes the horror of WWI, making a bleak comparison between what should be the natural experience of young men with the reality, which was definitely not romantic. The title is also significant because an anthem is a serious and usually religious hymn often sung at a funeral. Owen is comparing a peace-time funeral with the treatment the dead received during WWI.
The content of the poem describes the younger soldiers, mainly “boys” who are marching to the front line where they will most probably meet their death. It was a common theme to describe the soldiers as boys. The poem is written for these young boys, hence the title, and the for youth is the key point which emphasises this. The poem describes how awful it is at the Front Line, the sights and the sounds:
the shrill, demented choir of wailing shells, … The stuttering rifles,
The quotes above are both images of the war. These descriptions are found in the first verse and they help to paint the picture, through appealing to the sense of hearing, of what horror and devastation awaits the ‘boys’ on arrival at the front line.
In Anthem for Doomed Youth there is a question at the beginning of each stanza, which is then answered in the rest of the stanza. This shows symmetry and strict structure.
The first verse explains how war is hell on earth and many deaths are dealt with unemotionally, there being no time for such weakness. Any deaths occurring are dealt with in such a way that little respect is shown to the victim because death became commonplace and, therefore, matter of fact.
The first line asks a question that is then answered through the verse. The question,
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
is asking what bells are rung for the soldiers who die as cattle on the battlefields of WWI. The line is good because it involves the reader. The question is answered by comparing a death on the battlefield to a ‘normal’ peacetime death.
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
personifies the enemies weapons, making it appear as if the guns are angry and looking for something to hurt. This line seems to be forgiving the person behind the weapon: It is the weapon which kills cruelly, the enemy does not. The adjective monstrous is used because it makes the guns appear bigger than they actually are. It is also quite ironic that Owen is linking guns and weapons of destruction with religious ideas.
The next line,
Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
is very emotive because it sounds like the only prayer that is said is the few seconds of gunfire that kills them. It is also a stark contrast to a peacetime death where mourners and choir boys sing long, meaningful prayers for their dead.
Stuttering rifles rapid rattle
is onomatopoeic and rattle may also be a comparison to the ‘death rattle’ which is the last sound a throat makes when a person dies.
Lines 2 and 3 use repetition of the word only to emphasise the fact that what the soldiers receive is not enough. Also, lines 2 and 3 do not make it clear whether it is enemy guns or friendly fire, which is just as it would be in the trenches because their would be confusion and no-one would know who is firing at who.
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells,
uses the words shrill and demented specifically to make the guns insane.
The last line in the first stanza,
And bugles calling them from sad shires.
is particularly emotive because it is saying that the only loss felt for the dead is that they cannot fight any more; the military reveille is not answered.
Whilst the first stanza concentrates on sound, since the deep, dark trenches would not have many sights, stanza two goes into more detail about the expected, normal reactions to the frequent deaths and focuses on people’s reactions at home rather than death in the trenches. There are many funeral related terms in this stanza some of which are (when seen in the light of death): candles, flowers; both of which are present at any organised funeral. Owen is comparing a peacetime funeral with what the ‘boys’ receive at war.
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
is particularly emotive because it is saying that one only needs to look in their eyes to see the horrors they have witnessed.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
is saying that the dead soldiers do not have a cloth, or pall, over their coffin, except for the sad faces of their loved ones.
The next line, which includes
…of patient minds…
is saying that the only flowers, (which would come in abundance at a normal funeral), are the tender nature of patient minds. That is, the people waiting at home for a telegram.
The final line,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds
symbolises an image of respect. When people were killed at war, or died for any other reason, the families of the dead would draw down their blinds and shut their curtains as a mark of respect enabling them to mourn in private and also let other people know that there had been a death in the family. However, because death was so common during WWI, blinds would be drawn every day.
…each slow dusk…
is also significant because it is saying that the whole world is in mourning each day when dusk comes. The final line is also saying that the only blind drawn over bodies in the trenches is dusk. (Since there were so many dead, they would be piled high instead of being a respectful funeral.)
Owen is trying to show with this poem that war is not glorious and dignified, and soldiers dying should not be thought of romantically, as propaganda might, but as tragic, undignified and wasteful.
Some parts of the poem change quite significantly through the four versions of the poem. The title begins as Anthem To Dead Youth and then changes to Anthem For Dead Youth. Owen did this because for sounds softer than to. The other change to the title, changing Dead Youth to Doomed Youth was very significant because the poem goes from being about the dead to being about the living who are ‘doomed’ to die.
The poem changes direction several times throughout the four versions. The first draft seems to be referring to the enemy as the dead, because
only the monstrous anger of our guns.
suggests the writer is doing the killing.
The second draft refers to the dead as if the writer is talking to them, or thinking of them directly. This can be seen with phrases such as
…for you who die in herds?
Can patter out your hasty orisons
…bugles calling for you
The third draft is written strictly in the third-person, never referring to you, or our:
…for these dumb-dying cattle?
…of more guns. (Rather than our guns)
No chants for them
A rather tragic inference to this change is that the soldiers Owen is talking about have died by the third draft. For you could be interpreted that Owen is talking about the living whilst the third draft is talking about the dead.
Several changes in the poem have condensed an awkward phrase into a few words which flow much better. Having fewer words is also good because it is the mark of a good writer.
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells
sounds much better than
Nor any voice of mourning save the wail
The long drawn wail of high far-sailing shells.
The adjectives shrill and demented are good because they are associated with insanity. Choirs is used because it conjures the image of a demonic choir where there should be an angelic chorus for the dead.
Line 12 changes throughout the four versions, and improves the form of the poem. The first draft,
And pallor of girl’s cheeks shall be their palls
sounds awkward whilst the finished poem reads
The pallor of girl’s brows shall be their pall;
This flows much better and the alliterative pallor-pall fits more harmoniously than pallor-palls.
John Wain has written
Is there a finer war poem in world literature than Anthem For Doomed Youth?
and whilst I feel that Dulce Et Decorum Est is Wilfred Owen’s better poem, Anthem For Doomed Youth evokes powerful emotions in the present day reader. It recreates the horrors of over eighty years ago and makes them immediate.