Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Two weeks in, the assault on Ukraine grows uglier and uglier. Imagine what kind of person plans a bombing of a maternity hospital. The bravery of Ukraine resistance and the suffering of its people grip the entire world, at least those who have a heart and access to real news.
And yet today I’m going to hold out a hand to the Russian soldier. To some of them. To those young Russian soldiers who were duped, told they were on a training mission, and then ordered to kill, I offer Winfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” What pointless deaths for these Russian boys. What a waste of life. It makes me so angry. I can’t imagine the pain of their mothers, especially when they learn the full extent of Putin’s deception and cruelty.
Poet Wilfred Owen wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth” while recovering from shell-shock after his horrific experiences on the battlefields of France. His disillusion with war is surely shared by some of the young Russian soldiers.
Owen divides his sonnet into two sections, each beginning with an angry question. The first stanza takes place on the battlefield, the second on the home front where the doomed youth are mourned.
While I got the gist of this sonnet after a couple readings, I needed Websters to refine my understanding. Maybe this helps you too:
Passing bells: a bell rung to announce a death or a funeral.
Patter : to recite prayers (such as paternosters) rapidly or mechanically
Speed: archaic : prosperity in an undertaking : Success [as in “God speed”]
Pall (noun): a heavy cloth draped over a coffin
All the markings of a standard funeral are twisted. It’s like a funeral in a black mirror. Church bells, prayers for the dead, choirs, candles, casket cloth, flowers—each element has a corresponding horror in Owen’s bitter recreation of battlefield death. The poem is not only anti-war—the word “mockeries” shows Owen’s disenchantment with the church as well, his anger at the blindness and hypocrisy of so-called religious people who roar for the glory of war, safely from a distance, as boys are slaughtered.
And it’s all wrapped up in the pretty package of a sonnet. Boom.
That last line is just so sad. Can’t you just see the mothers pulling down the window blinds at dusk, another day ended without their boys.
Sadder still is that Owen’s anthem for young men could have been written for Owen himself. He died on the battlefield at age 25.
Wilfred Owen (1883-1918) was born in Shropshire, the oldest of four children. The family lived in a home owned by his grandfather, and when his grandfather died, they had to move around a lot, his father taking various jobs. His mother was a devout evangelical Anglican, and Owen was as well, initially.
Not having the grades for a scholarship to go to university or the funds, Owen worked for a vicar to help care of the poor. He became disillusioned with the church for not supplying enough resources for the underprivileged. He developed a serious respiratory infection and moved back home. After 8 months of recovery, he taught for Berlitz Schools and as a private tutor in France for two years.
In 1915, a year after WWI started, he decided to enlist. He had several serious injuries, the last one leaving him hiding in a hole next to the body of his dead friend for four days in freezing weather. Diagnosed with shell shock, Owen recuperated in a hospital in Edinburgh. There he met fellow patient and poet Siegfried Sassoon, who helped edit “Anthem.” Sassoon was an important influence and introduced Owen to other writers and publishers.
He taught at a local high school until he returned to active service in France in September of 1918. He was awarded the Military Cross for leading men to an attack on the enemy.
A week before the end of the war, Owen was killed in battle. His parents received the news on Armistice day, November 11.
He wrote almost all of his poetry in a single year, beginning with his time with Sassoon. He published only 5 poems in his lifetime, the rest published posthumously.