The poem ‘Anthem for doomed youth’ by Wilfred Owen is based on the massacre during World War 1. It is a Petrarchan sonnet that deals with the horror faced by adolescent soldiers and questions the real motif behind the wars. By questioning the funeral procedures of dead soldiers and contrasting it with the funerals of normal people, Owen expresses his disapproval and anger towards the war. It very effectively brings out the horrific scenes of the wars by using metaphors, alliteration, personification and rhetorical questions, all which bring out the futility of young soldiers dying and the insignificant funeral services carried for them.
The title itself is very ambiguous. Usually, an anthem is a commemoration for someone who has passed away, but the juxtaposition with ‘doomed’ shows the ill fate that the ‘youth’ is accustomed to. A negative vibe is created from the very beginning. The use of assonance in ‘doomed youth’ with repeated vowels gives the poem a despairing and disdainful tone.
The poem basically focuses on the pointlessness of war due to the immense fatality it causes. The tone is somber and morose. The poet makes use of a variety of techniques such as internal lines. e. g. – the repetition of ‘sh’ in ‘Shall shine’ and of g in ‘glimmers of goodbyes’.
Owen very effectively uses sounds to mirror his emotions. The poet uses very descriptive language and enhances it with rhetorical questions and juxtaposition. The rhyme is abab cdcd efgg. Poet uses present tense to show it is a recent and immediate topic.
The first stanza is slow paced with the use of a lot of punctuations. The octet focuses on the happenings of the battlefield and the circumstances under which the young soldiers die. It also particularly deals with the sound on the battlefield. The first line of the stanza itself is a rhetorical question, where Owen questions the death of soldiers.
The death of the soldiers is metaphorically compared to that of ‘cattle’, which shows that how the cattle is slaughtered in the same way huge numbers of soldiers are made to fight in battles and sacrifice their lives. They are commemorated by the sound of ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’. An inanimate object like a gun is shown to ‘feel anger’ at scenes of the war, and hence shows that if an inanimate object can see the uselessness of war, mankind too, should. With the use of pathetic fallacy, the reader very effectively conveys this message. The use of ‘only’ creates the effect that the sounds are not enough to compensate for the deaths.
Further this image is extended by the use of ‘no prayers nor bells’ that emphasizes on what the soldiers do not have. The only prayer said is one of ‘hasty orisons’, which shows religion failing to put an end to this. Owen introduces the idea of how religion in the form of ‘bells’ and ‘prayers’ is like a ‘mockery’ because the deaths are so many and so uncalled for that religion also cant do much to compensate for it. The last line of the octave introduces a new idea about the background that the soldiers come from and shows how deep the sorrow is of the loss.
The first stanza has a lot of auditory images that help to visualize the terror and trauma in the battlefield. Words like ‘stuttering rifles rapid rattle’, and ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ helps the reader to visualize the unpleasant and cacophony during the war. The alliteration in ‘ stuttering rifles rapid rattle’ shows the constant firing of bullets and the repetition of ‘r’ shows the frequency of deaths. Also by contrasting such violent sounds with that of ‘choirs’ and ‘prayers’, the poet highlights how the funeral ceremonies for such martyrs is so different to that of a normal dead person.
Further the idea of the funeral procedures of dead soldiers being contrasting to that of a traditional one is present throughout the poem. The title itself holds evidence for this. In a traditional ceremony an ‘anthem’ is played in remembrance for the dead soldiers, whereas for soldiers it is ‘all doomed’ and there is a dark future ahead. In a traditional ceremony, church ‘bells’ announce the death, however, in the case of soldiers it is ‘gunfire’. In the octet, the weapons of destruction such as ‘guns’, ‘rifles’, ‘shells’ and contrasts it with religious imagery such as ‘orisons’, ‘bells’ and ‘prayers’.
On one hand where there are prayers for the deceased, on the other hand, there is just ‘rifle fire’ where more and more youngsters lose their lives. This brings out the aspect of how menial the lives of the soldiers are. In religious funerals, there are choirs singing sweet songs, while soldiers on the battlefield have to settle for ‘demented choirs of wailing shells (explosives)’. Moreover, the soldiers don’t even have a ‘pall’ to cover their dead body with; they have just the ‘pallor’ that is the pale face of their loved ones.
Flowers usually given at funerals as a token of love and sorrow are not present at the deathbed of soldiers, they just sorrowful thoughts of their family for that. Antithesis is used to create a stark contrast between what the soldier’s lives could have turned out if they hadn’t died in war conditions. The sestet focuses on the aftermath of the death of the soldiers and the quiet mourning of the loved ones. The poet once again begins the stanza with a rhetorical question – ‘what candles may be held to speed them all’. ‘Candles’ are usually placed in church as a mark of remembrance for the dead.
Here it could imply that there is still hope for change. Instead of having candles to guide them in their afterlife, all the soldiers would have is ‘holy glimmers’, exchange of looks in the soldier’s eyes. One more thing the soldiers’ death ceremony will lack is that of a ‘pall’ to cover their bodies. The ‘pall’ is metaphorically compared to the paleness on the girl’s faces that will be evident in their sulking ‘brows’.
The last line of the sestet is very powerful. As dusk marks the end of light, ‘each slow dusk’ will mark the death of the martyrs and the end of their struggle. he night marks respect to the soldiers, whereas ‘drawing down of blinds’ usually takes place in the room with the coffin as a symbol of respect. The long vowel sounds in the last line shows how the memory of the soldiers will remain etched in the memory of the poet for the courageous tasks they have undertaken. Thus it throws light upon how first the soldiers sacrifice their lives for the country, and even after that they don’t get a proper funeral as a token for respect in fact they get to witness more and more of their colleagues dying instead..
Thus the poet targets the uselessness of war in being unfruitful and creates vivid images with the use of auditory and visual images. It very successfully depicts how the youth, the generation of the future has a very dark life ahead if war continues to brutally end their lives. The poem leaves the reader with a sense of shock by exposing the horrific battlefield images and fills us with sympathy for the many who lost their lives.