The speaker says there are no bells for those who die "like cattle" – all they get is the "monstrous anger of the guns". They have only the ragged sounds of the rifle as their prayers. They get no mockeries, no bells, no mourning voices except for the choir of the crazed "wailing shells" and the sad bugles calling from their home counties.
There are no candles held by the young men to help their passing, only the shimmering in their eyes to say goodbye. The pale faces of the girls will be what cover their coffins, patient minds will act as flowers, and the "slow dusk" will be the drawing of the shades.
This searing poem is one of Owen's most critically acclaimed. It was written in the fall of 1917 and published posthumously in 1920. It may be a response to the anonymous preface from Poems of Today (1916), which proclaims that boys and girls should know about the poetry of their time, which has many different themes that "mingle and interpenetrate throughout, to the music of Pan's flute, and of Love's viol, and the bugle-call of Endeavor, and the passing-bells of death."
The poem owes its more mature imagery and message to Owen's introduction to another WWI poet, Siegfried Sassoon, while he was convalescing in Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital in August 1917. Sassoon was older and more cynical, and the meeting was a significant turning point for Owen. The poem is structured as a Petrarchan sonnet with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme and is an elegy or lament for the dead. Owen's meter is mostly iambic pentameter with some small derivations that keep the reader on his or her toes as they read. The meter reinforces the juxtapositions in the poem and the sense of instability caused by war and death.
Owen begins with a bitter tone as he asks rhetorically what "passing-bells" of mourning will sound for those soldiers who die like cattle in an undignified mass. They are not granted the rituals and rites of good Christian civilians back home. They do not get real prayers, only rifle fire. Their only "choirs" are of shells and bugles. This first set of imagery is violent, featuring weapons and harsh noises of war. It is set in contrast to images of the church; Owen is suggesting organized religion cannot offer much consolation to those dying on the front. Kenneth Simcox writes, "These religious images...symbolize the sanctity of life – and death – while suggesting also the inadequacy, the futility, even meaninglessness, of organized religion measured against such a cataclysm as war. To 'patter out' is to intone mindlessly, an irrelevance. 'Hasty' orisons are an irreverence. Prayers, bells, mockeries only."
In the second stanza the poem slows down and becomes more dolorous, less enraged. The poet muses that the young men will not have candles – the only light they will get will be the reflections in their fellow soldiers' eyes. They must have substitutions for their coffin covers ("palls"), their flowers, and their "slow dusk". The poem has a note of finality, of lingering sadness and an inability to avoid the reality of death and grief.
The critic Jon Silkin notes that, while the poem seems relatively straightforward, there is some ambiguity: "Owen seems to be caught in the very act of consolatory mourning he condemns...a consolation that permits the war's continuation by civilian assent, and is found ambiguously in the last line of the octet." Owen might be trying to make the case that his poetry is a more realistic form of the expression of grief and the rituals of mourning.
Anthem for Doomed Youth: Wilfred Owen - Summary and Critical AnalysisAnthem for Doomed Youth, as the title suggests, is a poem about the waste of many young men in the First World War. The word ‘anthem’ in the title, unlike a national anthem that glorifies a country, is ironical, for there is just the opposite of glory in the absurd death of younger people shooting each other for nothing. The youth in the poem is doomed less by other (which the poem doesn’t mention) than by his own decision to join the battle.
The poem reminds us of the sonnet that Mr. Brooke wrote to glorify war and England in that jingoistic manner; Owen has used the same sonnet form (that was originally used to express love) to demystify the conventional glorification of war, by exposing the meanness and absurdity of dying in the battle. The poem is written in the form of a sonnet. The poem as a whole is about how to conduct the funeral of a certain (or any) soldier who has died in war.
The first eight line stanza (octet) describes how the guns and rifles, bursting bombs and the bugles will take the place of church bells, choirs of religious hymns, prayers, voices of people mourning and wailing, and the calling from the sad countryside. In the second six line stanza (sestet), he replaces more conventional objects and activities in mourning and funeral by more abstract and symbolic things back at home. The first stanza is full of images of war that will do the mourning, so that no human sympathy and ritual is necessary, because this is not natural and meaningful death. The second stanza is more devastating in its irony.
The octave begins with a rhetorical question. “What passing-bells for these who died as cattle?” The soldiers die like cows; their death doesn’t evoke much sorrow. The persona is not actually so apathetic; the viewpoint is ironic that of the indiffere4nt people who stay in the protection of home and never know that war is horrible and disgusting. The rhetorical assertion that no bells may be rung in the name of these soldiers is not so much about the manner of their dying but the little value that the society attaches to their death. So at the deeper level, the poem also reads like a direct invective scorn expressed by someone exasperated by war and senseless killing of the young. If a man dies, the bell is rung at the church but when the cattle die, we don’t ring the bell in the church. When a soldier dies, in situations like the World Wars, there is no much value attached to the death of mere soldiers.
By using the fixed form of the sonnet, Owen gains compression and a close interweaving of symbols. The structure depends, not only on the sonnet form but also on a pattern of echoing sounds from the very first line to the last, and upon Owen’s careful organization of groups of symbols and of two contrasting themes – in the octave the mockery of doomed youth, and in the sestet the silent personal grief which is the acceptable response to immense tragedy. The symbols in the octave suggest cacophony and the visual images in the sestet suggest silence. The poem is unified throughout by a complex pattern of alliteration and assonance. Deposited its complex structure, this sonnet achieves an effect of impressive simplicity in theme.
Irony is another important device in this poem. It is a terrible irony that men are dying as cattle. It is ironical that sympathy seems to have dried up, and men are patient about the death of the thousands of soldiers. Amidst these terrible ironies, the poet suggests ironically how we, as typical war lovers, conduct the funeral. Since the soldier loves to glorify the gun, it is perhaps his wish that the beloved guns sing the hymns after his death. The church is not as important as the bombs that will do the prayers. The second stanza is even more devastating in its irony. The poet has replaced not only the normal religious rituals; he has also supplied new materials for the funeral program. These metaphorical symbolic materials like the sad voice, the mourning, the pale expressions, patient minds and brightness of the eyes will no longer come to use, because they had been used to conduct the funeral of the soldier the very day he had decided to leave normal life and chosen to go to the battlefield and die! When the poet remembers today, he feels that the shining in the eyes or sad girls who said goodbye to the foolish soldiers was the funeral candle for them that very day! This idea of leaving funeral is certainly exaggerated, but it is also very true because the decision to go to kill your brothers is well high a departure for death. So the poet says that the funeral in human terms had been done and therefore it is no longer necessary now. Their death was a foregone conclusion, nothing shocking; that is why the people are patient. What is left now is for the guns and bombs to perform (or celebrate) the funeral of the soldiers who die as cattle.
The poem is remarkable for its sound symbolism. The sounds of the guns and rifles are echoed by the words like monstrous, anger, stuttering, rifle, rapid, rattle, patter hasty orisons, demented, and the like, all of which contain sounds like /r/ /d/ /t/, etc. The alliteration imitates the sound of the bullets blowing in the battlefield. In the sestet there is no sound of war but a vast funeral service for the dead soldiers. The poet asserts that there is no need for candles. The candles are replaced by the glimmering tears in the eyes of beloveds. Their glimmering tears become the candles for the funeral services. The flowers come from the tenderness of patient minds. A drawing of curtain symbolizes the darkness or the passing of the sun. The sestet concerns with different insight. It pictures the melancholy state of the mind of the beloved who thinks of her dead lover. She sees her fate caste with darkness.