Wilfred Owen: Anthem of Doomed Youth

Much of this poem is focused specifically on sound, the sounds of war. We have “monstrous anger of the gun” with machine being a connotative meaning of the word “monstrous” which is immediately followed by “anger of the guns”, an almost mechanical, repetition of syllables to evoke that very sound of the machine guns. And even in the opening line above this, we get a hint of this terrible sound in “cattle” as in rattle, and this juxtaposed with the image of bells, a sound we imagine as peaceful, and holy, but also as well as being literally tied around the neck of cattle. In this was he evokes the sounds of the guns, the sounds of peace (in the bells), and even the dog tags of the soldiers (“cattle” who are branded with a serial number, and wear a sort of bell around their neck).

To further inundate us with the cacophony of terrible, mechanical sound, we get more relentless gunfire (in this way we just can’t escape it) with “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”. Not only do we get the repetition, but there is a metallic quality to the a vowels in “rapid” and “rattle”. We can feel the metallic bite of these syllables.

And the final line of this rhyming pair (we’ve had “cattle” in line 1, “rattle” in line 3, “guns” in line 2, and finally “orisons” in line 4: 1-3, 2-4) we get orisons, an archaic word no longer used in modern English, that compliments the word “patter” in that there is a futility here (“patter” and “petering” out), but also in how it twists the word prayer into the desire of the guns to kill, as well as relate this to how long man has lived with warfare (it has an ancient quality to it).

This twisting of the word prayer is repeated in the word “mockeries” which also has an archaic meaning, a ludicrously futile action. This word sums up not only the futility of prayer in such a terrible situation, but also evokes the futility of the actions of the living. The famous image of men going over the top only to be mowed down by machine guns comes from WW1. Whole armies were lost due to outdated military practises (the French still wore brightly colored and feathered Hussar uniforms!) that hadn’t caught up to this new mechanized warfare. And so using these archaic words helps forces us to confront a situation we are unfamiliar with (for the reader a word they are unfamiliar with, and for the soldier a battle they are unprepared for).

And again we get the repeated “prayers” and “bells” but it’s negated with the first word in the line, “No”. There are no prayers, there is no hope, there will be no peace.

The next two lines are, in my opinion, the most brilliant use of language and imagery I’ve yet encountered in a poem. First he personifies these terrible sounds with the word “voice” and reinforces this with “choirs”. He evokes the image of mourners (which recalls the bells, too) with “mourning” but from this image of sadness in relation to the death of a loved one he conflates the two to give us a new image of the choirs being that of death itself. This is the sound of death, not just the sound of those who are left behind (which we get to later in the poem). Again he reinforces this image with “shrill” which evokes the actual sound the shells made as they wailed (he uses “wailing”) through the sky, and then follows with “demented” which actually sounds like the shell hitting the ground and maybe bouncing around before exploding – and death comes at the end here with the “-ed” of “demented” which rhymes with dead. And again, more repetition, this time with “choirs” to evoke the huge numbers these shells were being launched at their victims.

Finally the last line of the first stanza adds a musical quality to this terrible chorus. He uses “bugle”, that sad, lonely instrument played at military funerals, but also itself evocative of the sound of falling artillery shells. And the word “calling” is used effectively to represent the lonely bugle sounding from “sad shires” We imagine the bugler standing over the dead as those who are back home cry for the fallen.

Once again we get an archaic use of a common word, this time with “speed” (to make successful). Coupled with “candles” we get the image of mourning, perhaps a candlelight vigil for the dead, but also it’s a very old image that exists not of the time of WW1 (electric light had already been invented – this was a modern, mechanical war, after all) but of something out of time (the archaic uses of words), holy (church “bells”), and traditional (not modern). Futility then is repeated by inference here with the candles not really being able to speed on the dead since there is no candle that can do the job here.

Yet what Owen does next is extraordinary. He takes that image of the candle and literally reflects it in the “eyes”. He evoking the light of life itself still burning in those who live but snuffed out in those whom have been killed. And he even is able to show us tears by using “holy glimmers”, as in shimmers, “Shall shine” which are wet “sh” sounds. We can see the candle flame flickering in the wet eyes of mourners and in the eyes of the next crop of young men (“cattle”) who will be called up to die futily.

He has also dropped the rhyming scheme of the first stanza for something far more complicated. “candles” nearly rhymes with “hands of” (in “hands of boys”) – it’s almost synesthetic in how he puts the sound and the visual of the candles being held in our imagination. “eyes” is rhymed with “goodbyes” – both last lines in lines 2 and 3. He couples “pallor” with “pall” (which he rhymes with “all” in line 1), this being the paleness of the mourners as being pallbearers. And we get the final rhyme of “minds” and “blinds” which evokes the blind madness, the unthinking nonsense of war. And all this mixed up rhyming conveys the barbed wire confusion of war.

Owen also evokes a funeral with “Their flowers”, but he is using their two ways, as a determiner (their) and an adverb, “there” – There flowers, as in there they are, or here are flowers – for the dead. But these flowers also mask the smell of death and the “patient minds” are literally the dying patients and the “girls’” are the nurses who watched them die. And so he takes what at first looks like a hopeful image and turns it around into another death image.

And so he closes the poem – literally closes it – with the drawing of the blinds, an image of a soldier dying and closing his eyes for the last time. The eyes (and the mind) are blinds that close when we die (notice the rhyming). And he even plays with the “mourning” from the first stanza with “dusk” of the final = morning and evening, life and death, beginnings and endings.  Even the way the words “drawing down of blinds” sounds like it’s winding down, like a mechanical object that is ceasing to function.

Such a brilliant poem!