On this blog over the past year, we have seen quite a number of First World poems, from such as Siegfried Sassoon, WB Yeats and Guillaume Apollinaire. Most evoke the futility of the war, the doltish obstination of the generals and the suffering and misery of the soldiers. Today’s poem from Wilfred Owen stands squarely with these themes and has the added poignancy that the poet was killed in a pointless skirmish when the war was almost over. The poem’s title could indeed be referring to the poet himself.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
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 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 goodbyes.
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.
The point of the poem lies in the repeated contrast between the supposedly uplifting ceremonies of death – bells, prayers and choirs in the first stanza, candles and flowers in the second stanza – and the squalor and misery of the actual soldiers’ deaths on the battlefields, under constant, demoralising fire from guns and shells.
Despite the ceremonies, the poet is underscoring that there is no nobility or heroism in this real lives of the soldiers – their deaths are pointless, demeaning and miserable, as is most of their experience of war. We need the poets perhaps to remind us of this.
The Poetry Dude