World War I was a rough time for Britain, and one for which it was totally unprepared. The Germans were inching closer to Britain country by country, causing the British people to get awfully nervous about their homeland being invaded. The British military had to meet the Germans on the front line with drastically inferior weapons and numbers. Men who were enlisted in the army were getting slaughtered, and as they dropped like flies, people were needed to fill their space! Propaganda was circulated encouraging young British men to serve and protect their country. Here is a BBC article on the underage Brits joining the fight. This was a tragic era for men and women alike. In class we read a sampling of poets who were moved by their country’s condition. Wilfred Owen, May Weddrerburn Cannan, and Rupert Brooke were just a few of the people choosing to write about this tumultuous time. Although Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke both fought in the war, Owen’s poem Anthem for the Doomed Youth takes on a less positive tone toward war than Brooke’s The Soldier, which was widely distributed to encourage men to join up.
The title alone, Anthem for Doomed Youth, gives us some forewarning of what the poem is going to be addressing. An anthem is defined by Merriam Webster as a “song or hymn of praise or gladness,” and the first example listed is a “patriotic anthem” which is about pride for one’s country. Obviously in 1917 when this poem was written, Britain needed some praise, some gladness, and some pride from its people. However, this anthem is not for the country. It is for “doomed youth,” also known as those young men brutally sacrificing their lives for their country. Doomed leads me to believe that the subject to the doom (the youth) do not have very happy futures ahead of them. One’s youth seems so early to already be doomed, but that is the kind of struggle people were having in Britain (and probably world-wide). I assume that they were doomed because they are going on to fight in the war.
Owen is asking in this poem what kind of honor and ceremony can be given to these poor young men dying on the frontline “as cattle,” (2034). Cattle are killed masses at a time, which means that there is some carelessness present. There are no “passing-bells” as they die, but only the sound of gun fire. They do not even get prayers (“hasty orisons”) and the only “voice of mourning” are the “demented choirs of wailing shells,” (2034). The deaths are unceremonious and go largely unnoticed among all the deadly distractions. Without prayers, do they still have God in that moment? I would not think so, although I am not religious. The words “demented” and “wailing” both contrast harshly with the image of the choir. A choir is a group that sings all together at church proceedings. Without prayers, passing-bells, or choir songs, there is nothing to mark the inconsequential deaths of British soldiers.
There are also no candles being held “to speed them all,” (2035). Speed them to where? Heaven maybe? And if they are not being sped there, then where are they going? Hell? And why is speeding necessary? If the journey between death and heaven is a grueling one, then how fair is it that these boys, fighting for the good of their country, are the ones struggling through their afterlife? The falling soldiers’ goodbyes are “Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes,” (2035). Their hands give them control, and are what they have been using all along to enact their orders sent to them from above. Their eyes however are a window to their souls and their subconscious, of which they are not in control. Their opportunity for goodbyes and closure has been ripped from their very hands. Owen’s use of the word “boys” also seems deliberate, as opposed to using “men” or another term. Boys are part of the “youth” that is “doomed” because of the war.
There is a line about how “the pallor of the girls’ brows shall be their pall,” (2035) and I did not quite know what to make of it. Pallor is a pale, unwell appearance, and a pall is the fabric draped over one’s coffin. What I eventually took this to mean though was that the boys went to war, at least in part to prevent the girls from being sickly. It was this hope of prevention that lead them to rush into a fatal situation, thus causing there to be a need for a pall. It also could just mean that the girls back home are sad and unwell alongside the coffins of the dead soldiers.
Words like “tenderness” and “patient” contrast with the rest of the poem. The soldiers who have died receive flowers, and they stand in for “the tenderness of patient minds,” (2035). Tenderness is a very caring and comforting word. I usually think of a mother’s tenderness, which has sympathy and love at the roots. All that these boys get of that tenderness at this point though are some flowers that they probably do not even know are there. The last line: “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds,” (2035) contains what I found to be two euphemisms for death. The “slow dusk” is the end of the day, and the “drawing-down of blinds” means that one is no longer looking out on the world around them.
Overall this poem’s tone was not a positive one. Words like “monstrous”, “anger”, “demented”, and “mourning” give readers an idea of the emotions and adjectives that go along with something as dreadful as war. There are all of these people dying, and they are not getting the respect they deserve.
Owen, Wilfred. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2034-035. Print.