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The sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen explores the horrific and tragic conditions of the deaths of World War I soldiers on the Western front. By contrasting the soldiers’ deaths with the customary Christian funeral ceremonies, Owen comments on the dark irony that the young men who gave their lives to serve “God and their country” were denied the respectful yet superficial rituals that the religious society value so much.
The title of the poem well expresses the sentiments Owen conveys throughout the sonnet. The use of the term “anthem”, which is usually refers to a joyous and often religious song of praise, is in this case referring to the widely held view that fighting for one’s country is joyous and honorable. This anthem, however, is for “Doomed Youth”, and there is a dark irony that this widely held sense of pride and nationalism about war actually results in futility and death. Owen chooses to describe the young soldiers as “doomed” because they are destined for death as soon as they enter the army, because of the futility of the strategies used in this war. The soldiers are also referred to as “youth” to emphasize their innocence and create the image of healthy, fit young men dying for nothing, which arouses pity in the reader.
The first stanza is an octave that describes the horrifically violent conditions of these young soldiers’ deaths by contrasting and juxtaposing auditory imagery of the battlefield as the soldiers die with descriptions of customary funeral ceremonies. The first line is a rhetorical question, which forces the reader to truly ponder all that the soldiers lack in terms of acknowledgment and ceremonies of death, and this encouragement to think is further enhanced by the hyphen in the beginning of the second line, which forces the reader to pause.
Owen emphasizes the shocking nature of the soldiers’ world, the war, by saying that the soldiers “die as cattle”, which conveys the manner in which these young men are slaughtered inhumanely as if they are worthless and are treated as if they have no identity. Instead of “passing-bells”, which is society’s way of acknowledging a death, these soldiers receive the “only the monstrous anger of the guns”, which indicates that their death goes unnoticed as if they were just cattle.
Furthermore, Owen comments on all the rituals and customs that the soldiers fail to receive. The personification of the guns as being “angry” contrasts to the solemn sorrow the soldiers should have received upon their death. The repetition of “only” in lines 2 and 3 emphasizes all that the soldiers lack, as we are then told that instead of funeral prayers, the soldiers instead hear the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”; the alliteration echoes the gunfire and the onomatopoeia allows the reader to hear the harshness and irregular but constant sounds of the guns.
By implying that these guns “patter out their hasty orisons”, Owen points out the irony that these men who have gone to war for God are being killed and must have “orisons” muttered for them by the deadly machines that are responsible for their death. The “orisons” are described as “hasty”, which indicates the rapid pace of the war and the fact that these soldiers have little time to live. Furthermore, instead of church choirs, the soldiers hear the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”, which seems to suggest a demonic sound, perhaps implying that the soldiers receive no peace even after death. The personification of the shells as “wailing” is ironic because the weapons that killed the soldiers sound as if they are mourning for them.
Further down the stanza, Owen subtly criticizes the Christian religion and its ceremonies as he describes the funeral customs as “mockeries”. This term suggests the irony in the fact that these soldiers, who have given their lives for God and their country, are not able to enjoy these ceremonies that acknowledge their death, even though they may be the ones that most deserve them.
The last line of the first stanza foreshadows the coming volta as it shifts the focus from the conditions of death in war to the sadness that the deaths in the war brings to those who knew the soldiers. The sound of the gentle and beautiful “bugles calling” is a sharp contrast from the violent noises of the war but the mention of the “sad shires” seems to imply that this sad calling is coming from anonymous “shires” far away.
The sad, and less violent tone of the last line of the octave is carried onto the second paragraph, in which the tone becomes contemplative and sorrowful. There is a volta as the focus shifts from the violence of the war to the sober yet sincere way in which these young men die at war, with no elaborate customs but with pure, untainted emotion. Owen begins this stanza with another rhetorical question: “What candles may be held to speed them all?” The term “speed them all” seems to refer to the passage to heaven, and thus we are made to wonder: without candles or ceremony, will the soldiers be able to find their way to heaven, or will they haunt the battle grounds forever?
In the following lines Owen gives us the heartrending but optimistic answer that indicates that although the soldiers are neglected of the traditional funeral ceremonies, nature itself and those who love them give them a metaphorical ceremony that is much more sincere and pure. Therefore, although the candles are not in their hands, they are in “their eyes”. This metaphor gives the image of sparkling, glittering eyes, as if the soldier’s eyes were brimmed with tears as he died.
This pure emotion of sorrow of “goodbyes” is suggested to be purer and more sincere than artificial and elaborate ceremonies through the use of positive words such as “shine”, “glimmer” and “holy”. Owen suggests that through pure emotions, the soldiers have their own special kind of funeral as the “pallor of girls brows shall be their pall”, which conveys how the sadness of their loved ones acts as their funeral covering. This substitution of emotions for the ceremonial objects continues in line 13, when the “tenderness of patient minds” metaphorically become these soldiers’ flowers.
The last line of the poem is very powerful as it concludes the poem by showing how the deaths of the soldiers are being acknowledged in a way far superior to the religious ceremonies. Owen depicts the way in which instead of having the “drawing-down of blinds”, that is a traditional act of acknowledging their death, all of nature is metaphorically drawing the blinds by slowly becoming dark in a “slow dusk”. The adjective “slow” conveys the respect that all of nature is paying to these brave men, even as society forgets about them.
Ultimately, Owen takes the reader through an incredible journey in this short but deep sonnet. He conveys the the horrors of war and depicts all the religious ceremony that these soldiers are ironically denied off. However, towards the end of the poem, Owen brings us to realize the strength of the emotions and sorrow of those who loved these youth as their raw feelings became the soldiers’ funeral. Although the poem is bleak and dark throughout, the last stanza is poignant and heartrending as we realize that emotions and love are stronger and more important than any customs or traditions.