Literary Analysis of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen

November 9, 2021 by Essay Writer

The poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen was written during World War I in 1917, when Owen was recovering from shell shock in a war hospital in Edinburgh. Hence, Owen writes from the perspective of a soldier on a battlefield. The persona presents in this poem the effects of war on young male adults sent to war: their loss of identity and their premature death as well as, the indifference or even lack of respect of society towards their premature death. It could be suggested that the author is exploring the theme of the horror of war and the separation war creates between those who stay at home and those who thought: the so-called two nation effect. In order to convey these themes the author employs irony, aural imagery, visual imagery, repetition

The structure of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is ironic. It is written in the form of a hybrid sonnet, as it combines the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet with the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet except for lines 11 and 12. The Petrarchan sonnet is a variation of the Elizabethan sonnet as the fourteen lines are divided in two unequal stanzas. The Shakespearean rhyme scheme is ABAB, CDCD, EFFE, GG. One should note that Owen uses a half-rhyme for B. The fact that Owen uses the structure of a sonnet is ironic because these ones have traditionally a joyful mood and are themed around love. This is directly opposite to Owen’s poem which has a gloomy mood and is themed around war. The lines are written in iambic pentameter, as a line contains five pairs of syllables where the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed. Except for line 2 and 3 where the stress falls on the first syllable in the first pair in each line. The structure of the poem is ironic and highlights the fatalism of war.

The beginning of the second stanza brings forth a shift in setting, imagery, structure, tone and rhythm which contribute to the theme of the two nations. The first stanza talks about soldiers on the battlefields and their premature death whilst the second about those who stayed at home and are mourning the dead. The persona uses primarily aural imagery in the first stanza and visual imagery in the second one. The first stanza is an octet which is contrasted with the second stanza which is a sestet. The tone in first stanza where the persona describes war on the battlefield the tone is acerbic and condemning while in the second stanza where the persona describes war for those back home the tone is sympathetic and fatalistic. The tone is similar to the one in the poem the sendoff also written by Wilfred Owen. Furthermore, the first stanza is written in the present in order to make the horror of war more real to the readers as well as emphasize the fact that this is happening right now as we read this poem while the second is written in the future emphasize the fact that the death of these boys will never be forgotten.

The rhythm of the poem should also be taken into account as it starts off with a quick pace, and then slows down throughout the poem, drawing to a slow and sombre close. This not only enhances the theme of the two nations but can also be associated with the attitudes of the youth who enrolls in the military thrilled to honor their country but soon realize the truth about war. Nevertheless, both stanza use rhetorical question on their first lines to which the persona goes on to answer in the stanza itself. “What passing-bell for these who die as cattle”? line 1 and “what candles may be held to speed them all?” line 9. These one question the readers and allows the readers step into a soldier’s shoes, thus, increasing their emotional response to the lines following.

The title used for the poem is ironic and instantaneously shatters the fantasized images of war contributing to the theme of the two nations. The poem is entitled “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”, one should note that the word anthem refers to a song, patriotic in nature which is synonymous with praise for one’s country and support of its troops. In fact an anthem is a song that is supposed to conjure up feelings of love and honor for one’s country. Owen contrasts it with the word “doomed” which implies that the soldiers are destined to die soon. Furthermore, the word ‘doomed’ not only foreshadows the fate of these soldiers but also of the poem itself, as the persona seem to come to the conclusion that these deaths will continue to come. The word “youth” follows it which reminds the readers of the innocence, strength and vitality of these young soldiers. In addition, the long vowel sound given by the two words combined is intended to be melancholic and contrasting with the idea of strength. Thus, this title highlights the theme of the two nations as those back home sing “Anthems” to praise the honor and support the soldiers on the battlefields as well as highlighting the glamour of war while actually war is synonymous to the inescapable death of innocent young males. The title summarizes the poem a mixture of thoughts related to religion and death, irony, and cynicism.

Owen extensively employs figurative language in order to explore the theme of the horror of war. The simile soldier “die as cattle” line 1, the amount of deaths occurring on the battlefield is compared to cattle being slaughtered hence, emphasizing it large number and its repetitive occurrence, as though mechanical. Furthermore, the use of the word cattle evokes the lack of identity of the soldiers, the contemptuous of their death and the lack of emotion towards their premature death. A hyperbole is used in line 2: “monstrous anger” in order to exaggerate the fury of war and evoking the lack of rationality. This anger is personifies the guns creating the image of guns being completely out of control and appearing to take the upper hand on the soldiers. Hence, making the guns appear responsible for the deaths of these soldiers. It should be noted that ‘Guns’ is a loud and rhythmic word, creating the impression that war is fierce, like a monster. The effective use of onomatopoeia in “stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle” (lines 3), evokes the sound of guns and destruction as highlighted by the extensive use of “r” and “t” letters. The alliteration also presented by these words emphasizes the quick pace of war. The use of “hasty orisons” line 4 which means here funeral prayers leaves the readers with the certitude these soldiers will die.

The persona contrasts the battlefield with religious imagery suggesting his condemnation of war as well as exploring the theme of the two nations. Weapons of destructions “guns” (line 2), “rifles” (line 3) and “shells” (line 7), are followed by antagonistic religious imagery “orisons” (line 4), “bells” (line 5), “prayers” (line 5), suggesting the persona’s condemnation of the war as deprived of morals. Who will commemorate these boys’ lives? There will be “‘No mockeries no prayers nor bells” “nor any voices of mourning” line 5 and 6, showing the lack of respect of society towards their premature death as no traditional religious ceremony will take place. “The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”, line 7, the hard and strong word “shrill” implies that the funerals were not quiet and peaceful. The aural imagery suggests once more, that it was not an appropriate way of saying goodbye. This line shows that the church has no place on the battlefields as the choirs are described as demented. The demented choirs also serve as personification for the shotgun shells which stresses the fact that the weapons are the ones controlling the situation and are going insane as well as evoking disturbing and frightening aural imagery of shells. Furthermore, the personification and onomatopoeia “wailing shells” implies the suffering and the irrationality of these soldiers’ deaths. The alliteration used in the last line of the first stanza “sad shires” suggests the suffering for relatives and friends back home in England countryside where many soldiers came from. The soldiers are not give the proper funeral rites, and instead are treated as if they were “cattle” on the Western Front.

The funeral deprived of all sanctity on the Western Front is contrasted with the funeral marches at home. The sanctity of the life of these soldiers is recalled by those at home highlighted by the words “candles” line 9, “holy glimmers” line 11, and “flowers” line 13. The aural setting is contrasting: explosions of the shells, and at home, quite, sorrowful cries highlighted by “pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall” line 12. This evokes an image in the readers’ minds of mothers, wives and girlfriends with tears streaming down their colorless faces, showing their hopefulness. The compassion and grief of relatives is evident in the lines 10 and 11 “Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes / Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes”. They are described as “boys” line 10, emphasizing their innocence and their naivety of the soldiers. This creates a very powerful and emotive imagery for the readers, showing how war has deprived them from a joyful life back home underlined by the use of the alliteration. It also replies to the rhetoric question put forth in the first line of the second stanza, “what candles may be held to speed them all?” line 9, it will not be candles but the holy last glimmer in their eyes will mark their passage from the living. The soldiers though appearing to die without identity and dignity on the battlefields will be forever remember by those at home as suggested by the use of “flowers” as a metaphor of their memories of the dead.

“each slow dusk” (14): dusk speaks of finality, it shows how slow time passes for those who mourn “a drawing-down of blinds” (14): privacy for mourning families, indicating maybe that a coffin is inside, sign of respect for the loss of life. The final line of the poem an alliteration using the sound “d”, accompanies the drawing dusk over the battlefield where soldiers lie, and the drawing down of blinds in the houses where they are mourned, and this appears to be a vivid comparison between the two worlds.

In conclusion, Wilfred Owen’s poignant use of irony, figurative language and onomatopoeia in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” allows him to explore the two main themes of this poem: the horror of war and the effect on the two nations. Overall, the poem engenders a clear condemning message towards war. I believe this message to be highly relevant to society of War World I as propaganda and pro-war poetry was popular at the time which did not and could not reveal the truth about war as Owen did due to his firsthand experience.

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