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 army—and 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.
......."Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a hybrid sonnet—that 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 SONSOccasionally 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 onomatopoeia—stuttering rifles, rapid rattle, patter out, and wailing shells—imitate the sounds on the field.
.......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.
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.