'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a poem by the British poet Wilfred Owen, drafted at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh in 1917. Owen had been admitted to the hospital after suffering from shell shock after a period of fighting in the Battle of the Somme. At the hospital, he met the older poet Siegfried Sassoon, who had just published his book The Old Huntsman (1917); his direct, unflinching style allowed Owen to bring similar characteristics into his own work, and the drafts show that Sassoon participated in editing the poem.

The title, which was apparently suggested by Sassoon, sets up the religious theme with the term ‘anthem’, which suggests church music. The theme continues with references to ‘passing-bells’, ‘choirs’, ‘orisons’ ‘candles’ and ‘palls’, which are all violently juxtaposed with the terminology of war: this happens most strikingly in the description of ‘The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells’. Owen, who had grown up in a devoutly religious background, found his beliefs difficult to square with a war against an enemy who was also Christian; writing to his mother around this time that ‘pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism’.

The poem itself takes the form of a sonnet: 14 lines, in the stanzaic pattern of octave (eight lines) followed by sestet (six lines). Roughly speaking, these address the front and then the ‘home front’: respectively the men who have died ‘as cattle’, and the women left behind, the ‘girls’ whose ‘pallor’ shall be their ‘pall’ (the cloth placed over the coffin in normal civilian funereal arrangements). The latter is an example of the ‘pararhyme’ – a kind of half-rhyme – albeit within a line rather than at its end. Though he did not invent it, Owen’s development of it is seen as one of his unique technical contributions to English poetry; in words of the critic Jon Stallworthy, it ‘gives the musical movement of a poem … a dying fall’; a sense of disappointed hopes.

For some critics – Geoffrey Hill and John Silkin, for example – the poem’s ‘home front’ scenes in particular fall prey to the consolatory mourning and Romantic sentimentalising of war that Owen more robustly dismissed in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.

Wilfred Owen

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