Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen: Summary and Critical Analysis
Anthem for Doomed Youth, as the title suggests, is a poem about the waste of many young men in the First World War. The word ‘anthem’ in the title, unlike a national anthem that glorifies a country, is ironical, for there is just the opposite of glory in the absurd death of younger people shooting each other for nothing. The youth in the poem is doomed less by other (which the poem doesn’t mention) than by his own decision to join the war.
The poem reminds us of the sonnet that Mr. Brooke wrote to glorify war and England in that jingoistic manner; Owen has used the same sonnet form (that was originally used to express love) to demystify the conventional glorification of war, by exposing the meanness and absurdity of dying in the battle. The poem is written in the form of a sonnet. The poem as a whole is about how to conduct the funeral of a certain (or any) soldier who has died in war.
The first eight line stanza (octet) describes how the guns and rifles, bursting bombs and the bugles will take the place of church bells, choirs of religious hymns, prayers, voices of people mourning and wailing, and the calling from the sad countryside. In the second six line stanza (sestet), he replaces more conventional objects and activities in mourning and funeral by more abstract and symbolic things back at home. The first stanza is full of images of war that will do the mourning, so that no human sympathy and ritual is necessary, because this is not natural and meaningful death. The second stanza is more devastating in its irony.
The octave begins with a rhetorical question. “What passing-bells for these who died as cattle?” The soldiers die like cows; their death doesn’t evoke much sorrow. The persona is not actually so apathetic; the viewpoint is ironic that of the indiffere4nt people who stay in the protection of home and never know that war is horrible and disgusting. The rhetorical assertion that no bells may be rung in the name of these soldiers is not so much about the manner of their dying but the little value that the society attaches to their death. So at the deeper level, the poem also reads like a direct invective scorn expressed by someone exasperated by war and senseless killing of the young. If a man dies, the bell is rung at the church but when the cattle die, we don’t ring the bell in the church. When a soldier dies, in situations like the World Wars, there is no much value attached to the death of mere soldiers.
By using the fixed form of the sonnet, Owen gains compression and a close interweaving of symbols. The structure depends, not only on the sonnet form but also on a pattern of echoing sounds from the very first line to the last, and upon Owen’s careful organization of groups of symbols and of two contrasting themes – in the octave the mockery of doomed youth, and in the sestet the silent personal grief which is the acceptable response to immense tragedy. The symbols in the octave suggest cacophony and the visual images in the sestet suggest silence. The poem is unified throughout by a complex pattern of alliteration and assonance. Deposited its complex structure, this sonnet achieves an effect of impressive simplicity in theme.
Irony is another important device in this poem. It is a terrible irony that men are dying as cattle. It is ironical that sympathy seems to have dried up, and men are patient about the death of the thousands of soldiers. Amidst these terrible ironies, the poet suggests ironically how we, as typical war lovers, conduct the funeral. Since the soldier loves to glorify the gun, it is perhaps his wish that the beloved guns sing the hymns after his death. The church is not as important as the bombs that will do the prayers. The second stanza is even more devastating in its irony. The poet has replaced not only the normal religious rituals; he has also supplied new materials for the funeral program. These metaphorical symbolic materials like the sad voice, the mourning, the pale expressions, patient minds and brightness of the eyes will no longer come to use, because they had been used to conduct the funeral of the soldier the very day he had decided to leave normal life and chosen to go to the battlefield and die! When the poet remembers today, he feels that the shining in the eyes or sad girls who said goodbye to the foolish soldiers was the funeral candle for them that very day! This idea of leaving funeral is certainly exaggerated, but it is also very true because the decision to go to kill your brothers is well high a departure for death. So the poet says that the funeral in human terms had been done and therefore it is no longer necessary now. Their death was a foregone conclusion, nothing shocking; that is why the people are patient. What is left now is for the guns and bombs to perform (or celebrate) the funeral of the soldiers who die as cattle.
The poem is remarkable for its sound symbolism. The sounds of the guns and rifles are echoed by the words like monstrous, anger, stuttering, rifle, rapid, rattle, patter hasty orisons, demented, and the like, all of which contain sounds like /r/ /d/ /t/, etc. The alliteration imitates the sound of the bullets blowing in the battlefield. In the sestet there is no sound of war but a vast funeral service for the dead soldiers. The poet asserts that there is no need for candles. The candles are replaced by the glimmering tears in the eyes of beloveds. Their glimmering tears become the candles for the funeral services. The flowers come from the tenderness of patient minds. A drawing of curtain symbolizes the darkness or the passing of the sun. The sestet concerns with different insight. It pictures the melancholy state of the mind of the beloved who thinks of her dead lover. She sees her fate caste with darkness.