A Poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Wilfred Owen: Talented Poet Killed in World War I
.......Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England, in 1893 and studied at the University of Reading. Because he could not afford to continue his education, he left school and worked as an English-language tutor in France while also writing poetry. After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the loss of so many young lives horrified him. Nevertheless, after returning home in 1915, he enlisted in the Artist's Rifles of the British army, received a commission, and shipped out to France in late December 1916. Over the next several months, he wrote poetry to record his impressions of the war. In the spring of 1917, he exhibited symptoms of shell shock after experiencing the hell of trench warfare. He also contracted trench fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by lice. His superiors returned him to Britain, where he underwent treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, then a suburb of Edinburgh and now part of the city. While there, he continued to write poems, one of which was Anthem for Doomed Youth. An experienced poet who was also receiving treatment, Siegrfied Sassoon (1886-1967), helped him edit and polish his work. After his discharge from the hospital, Owen mingled with poets and wrote more poetry. His work by this time was showing great promise. Eventually, he returned to the armyand to war. He died in battle just one week before the war ended (November 11, 1918). He was only twenty-five. However, his war poems, including Anthem, lived on and today remain as meaningful and relevant as when he wrote them.
.......Anthem for Doomed Youth is a lyric poem in the format of a sonnet. Wilfred Owen wrote it in 1917 while under treatment for psychological trauma and trench fever (as explained in the paragraph above) at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, then a suburb of Edinburgh and now part of the city.
.......The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest, popularized the sonnet format. Other famous Italian sonneteers were Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italy's most esteemed writer, and Guido Cavalcante (1255-1300). A Petrarchan sonnet consists of an
eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). Generally, the first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE.
.......The sonnet form was introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547). They translated Italian sonnets into English and wrote sonnets of their own. Wyatt and Surrey sometimes replaced Petrarch's scheme of an eight-line stanza and a six-line stanza with three four-line stanzas and a two-line conclusion known as a couplet. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) adopted the latter scheme in his sonnets. His rhyme scheme was ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The meter of his lines was iambic pentameter. After his sonnets were published in a 1609 collection, the English sonnet became popularly known as the Shakespearean sonnet.
......."Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a hybrid sonnetthat is, it combines the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet with the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet except for lines 11 and 12. (The rhyme scheme of Shakespeare's sonnets is ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG; the rhyme scheme of Owen's poem is ABAB, CDCD, EFFE, GG.
.......All lines except 2 and 3 are in iambic pentameter, a verse format in which a line contains five pairs of syllables (ten syllables in all). In each pair, the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed, making up a unit called an iamb. Lines 4, 5, and 6 of the poem demonstrate the pattern of iambic pentameter:Can PAT..|..ter OUT..|..their HAS..|..ty OR..|..is SONS
No MOCK..|..er IES..|..for THEM..|..from PRAYERS..|..or BELLS
Nor AN..|..y VOICE..|..of MOURN..|..ing SAVE..|..the CHOIRSOccasionally a line of iambic pentameter contains an extra syllable, for a total of eleven, as in line 1:What PASS..|..ing BELLS..|..for THESE..|..who DIE..|..as CAT..|..tleLines 2 and 3 of "Anthem for Doomed Youth" veer from the iambic pattern because the stress falls on the first syllable in the first pair (ON ly) in each line. To learn more about iambic pentameter and other forms of meter, click here.
....... Owen wrote the poem from the perspective of a soldier on a battlefield. In the first eight lines (octet), the soldier asks and answers a question. Notice that the answer appears in the present tense and focuses almost exclusively on the sounds and frantic pace of war. Phrases with onomatopoeiastuttering rifles, rapid rattle, patter out, and wailing shellsimitate the sounds on the field.
.......In the last six lines (sestet), the soldier asks and answers another question. Notice that this time the answer appears in the future tense and focuses entirely on the sights of the mourning period and the agonizing slowness of its pace.
.......Throughout the poem, Owen uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony, as in rifles' rapid rattle and glimmers of good-byes. Note that some alliterations occur subtly, as in the st in hasty that echoes the st in stuttering and in the sh in shrill that alliterates with the sh in shells and the sh in shires.
.......In the octet, two personifications call attention to the terrifying rage and insanity of war: monstrous anger of the guns (comparison of guns to angry humans) and demented choirs of wailing shells (comparison of the shells to deranged humans).
.......In the sestet, three metaphors center on the poignant suffering of the mourners at home. One compares the holy glimmers in the eyes of boys to candles, and another compares the pallor of the girls' brows to the pall that covers the casket. In the third, the tenderness of patient minds becomes the flowers that adorn the soldiers' graves.
.......The butchery of war horrified Wilfred Owen. His comrades in arms represented the best hope for a better future, but all around him that hope was vanishing in the fire and smoke of the battlefield. The war also devastated the loved ones at home, robbing them of sons, daughters, brothers, and fathers and leaving only emptiness behind.
Loss of Identity
.......In war, young men with distinct personalities and unique talents become nameless pawns to do the bidding of the political decision-makers. When they fall on the battlefield, no one stops to mourn them or pay them homage. The bombs keep falling. The guns keep firing.
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 for them from prayers or 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.
Passing-bells: A custom in England dating back many centuries was to ring a bell when a person was dying. Those who heard it were to pray that the person's soul would pass on to the light of heaven when he or she diedhence, the term passing bell. Today, churches traditionally toll bells at
Cattle: The comparison of the soldiers to slaughtered cattle underscores the inhumanity of war; it treats men as mere animals.
Orisons (OR ih zuns): Prayers.
Wailing shells: It is ironic that the killers, the shells, are also personified mourners.
Candles: Held by altar boys, the candles represent to Owen ritualistic, artificial funereal trappings. More appropriate to him is the sad glimmer in the eyes of these boys.
Pall: The cloth, usually black, covering the coffin at a funeral. To Owen, it is, like the candles, an artificial funereal trapping. More appropriate as a pall is the pallor (paleness) on the faces of girls.
Drawing-down of blinds: This simple phrase allows the reader to picture the behind-the-scenes suffering of the loved ones after the burial of a soldier.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write a short essay arguing that "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is as meaningful today as it was when Owen wrote it in 1917.
2. Ask a person who fought in a war whether the poem expresses what he or she felt on the battlefield. Report your answer to your class.
3..What is an anthem?
4. Identify three alliterating words in the last line of the poem.
5. Did you notice that the first word of the first and second stanzas is the same (what) and that the first word of the last line of each stanza is also the same (and)? In your opinion, why did frame each stanza with what and and?