Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
Owen: Talented Poet Killed in World War I
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.
of Work: Sonnet
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.
Sonnet Format: Petrarchan and Shakespearean
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.
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
Poem: a Hybrid Sonnet
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,
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:
Occasionally a line of iambic
pentameter contains an extra syllable, for a total of eleven, as in line
CAT..|..tle Lines 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
Approach and Literary Devices
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 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.
the poem, Owen uses alliteration to promote
rhythm and euphony, as in rifles'
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
that alliterates with the sh in shells and the sh
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).
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.
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
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.
Anthem for Doomed
By Wilfred Owen
for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger
of the guns.
the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty
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.
may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys,
but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers
The pallor of girls' brows
shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness
of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down
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 died—hence, the term
bell. Today, churches traditionally toll bells at funerals.
The comparison of the soldiers to slaughtered cattle underscores the inhumanity
of war; it treats men as mere animals.
(OR ih zuns): Prayers.
shells: It is ironic that the killers, the shells, are also
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.
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.
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
1. Write a short essay arguing
that "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is as meaningful today as it was when Owen
wrote it in 1917.
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.
is an anthem?
Identify three alliterating words in the last line of the poem.
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?