Posts Tagged ‘funerals’

Wilfred Owen: Anthem For Doomed Youth

June 21, 2022

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 good-byes.
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.

Form, first of all: this one is obviously a sonnet. Sonnets were traditionally love poems above all else, so what is Owen doing here? Is he sending up the idea of love poetry, using the sonnet in an opposite way (war=hate)? Or is he expressing a sense of love for those who are lost, killed in war? Or both, perhaps? Why not? It’s a Petrarchan, rather than a Shakespearean sonnet. Notice the rhyme scheme, and the shift in mood after the eighth line.

What is it about? Funerals. Except that Owen is drawing out a distinction, all the way through the poem, between the traditional religious funeral rituals of peacetime, and the total absence of anything like that when someone is killed at the front line. And it’s also interesting to think about the fact that Owen originally called his poem Anthem for Dead Youth, rather than Anthem for Doomed Youth. Is that significant, and is his final choice of title more effective? There’s a finality about dead, whereas doomed sounds more ominous, because the person is alive but not for much longer… And if you are interested in how Owen changed and revised his poems, then you can find drafts and revisions to look at online.

You need to pay full attention to how Owen uses language, and all the poetic devices that he crams into his poems; this one is no exception. Although I shall mention many of them, you may well find more.

The passing bells are those that would toll slowly at the church where a funeral was about to take place. They sounded very solemn and everyone would know what they signified. On the battlefield, the only sound is that of gunfire: look at how Owen presents this. The men die as cattle; contrast the lengthy vowel sounds early in the line with the short a of cattle, which brings us up short, as does the image of cattle, which conjures up the image of a slaughterhouse. The heavy two syllables of monstrous echo artillery fire, whilst the onomatopoeia of the stuttering rifles, and the alliteration (rifles, rapid, rattle) echoes machine-gun fire. This continues with the half rhyme in the next line (rattle, patter).

Orison is an archaic word for a prayer, a crucial part of any church funeral service. On the battlefield these are hasty – as if there would be any time at all for praying over someone killed there. Patter is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly there is the echo of rattle I just noted above. Then there is the meaning of the word, in the sense of words used quickly without any real focus on their meaning, like the patter of a salesperson. Finally there would be, for readers in Owen’s time, the reminder of the Lord’s Prayer (which begins Pater Noster in Latin).

Into the second quatrain: such ritual would be a mockery on the battlefield. No prayers or bells then; no choirs such as would sing hymns and anthems (back to the poem’s title) at a funeral in church. Instead, the poet likens the sound of approaching shells before they explode; the word demented emphasises the utter craziness of it all. The bugles recall the training camps before the men were sent to the front (look at Owen’s poem The Send-Off) and the alliteration of sad shires reminds us of all the different local regiments which the men volunteered for, or were conscripted into. These ‘pals battalions’ often meant that entire communities of men were wiped out together in a single day’s fighting; there are monuments all along the Western Front to such battalions.

The noise and anger of the octave gives way to a calmer, more peaceful, sad and mournful mood in the sestet. Candles are an obvious part of a church service; in days gone by, special candles made from unbleached wax were often used to add solemnity (and gloom) to a funeral service. No alter servers or choirboys will be carrying these to funerals at the front. We need to remember that often there would be no physical remains after a death on the battlefield, as well as the government decision that all the war dead would be buried where they fell rather than brought back home. So the grief is internalised. The rhyming of eyes and goodbyes is very effective, very moving, as is the idea of holy glimmers.

A pall is the heavy embroidered cloth which was used to cover the coffin while it rested in church during a funeral; none of these at the front, obviously; and yet the idea of the pall is prefigured in the pallor of girls’ brows. Who are the girls? Girlfriends? Daughters? No flowers at the front either, although we may be reminded of the poppies of Flanders’ fields. And look at how the pace of the poem gradually slows down as the sestet develops, through longer vowel sounds until we reach the poignant alliteration of the final line: dusk/drawing/down/blinds. This is a reference to how blinds or curtains would be shut in a house from which a funeral set off.

It’s a powerful poem, which pays reading aloud, with attention to how the poet uses sounds and repetitions to create a solemn mood, a sad mood. We are reminded how serious a business a funeral was a century and more ago. If you need to compare this poem with another, you can do worse than pair it with another sonnet, Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. Contrast the tone and mood of the two poems, and remember that one was written in the early days of the war, and the other when the war was part of everyone’s lives, and its awful reality had sunk in on the people of England.

%d bloggers like this: