Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for a Doomed Youth is exactly that, an anthem ( a solemn song) to commemorate the “children” that will die in this war. By using the word anthem, he calls to mind the glory and honor of a national anthem, however; he goes on to explain that there is no honor or glory in death. Written in sonnet form, it is an elegy for the dead. The octave deals with auditory images of war and death and the sestet deals with more visual images. Wilfred Owen masterfully uses both imagery and figurative language to convey his lament for these young people who will die.
In the octet of this poem (the first eight lines), Owen catalogues all the images of death, from the “passing bells” (1), “anger of the guns” (2), rattle of guns (3), funeral prayers (4), “wailing shells” (7), “bugles and sad shires” (8). Many of these images are personified as well, such as the rattling guns and wailing shells. These images will be the funeral that the boys get, not the real one that they deserve. This personification contributes to the harshness of the images and creates auditory images for the reader. The reader can hear the sensory images. However, these images are also set directly against religious imagery, to further emphasize the destructiveness of war. The passing bells, prayers, choirs, and candles emphasize the preciousness of human life. Owen may go so far as to suggest that even religion is helpless against such a powerful destructive force as war. This tone is suggested by the fact that prayers and bells are set against a word like “mockery” (5). Just the term “hasty orisons” (4) has a somewhat disrespectful tone.
Owen’s use of both similes and metaphors further emphasize the meaning of the poem. The first line jolts the reader with the simile that these young people “die as cattle” (1). He implies with this phrase that war causes human beings to treat others as less than human. In line three, the reader can hear the sound imagery of the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” (3). The word “anger” in line 2 also emphasizes the destructive hatred of war. “Choirs of wailing shells” is a powerful metaphor in line 7 contrasting the world of war and the world of God.
For the rest of the poem various religious images abound. For example, the word candles would call to mind the church candles, but they also mean the candles lit in rooms where coffins lie. “Holy glimmers of goodbyes” (line 9) combines religious imagery with the idea of death. In the “pallor/pall” half rhyme of line 11, these two words combine in one line to show the seriousness of the situation. Young people are dying in war, and it is tragic. The “flowers” of line 11 are also a double-edged sword. Flowers are given on very happy, momentous occasions, but they are also in abundance at solemn occasions like funerals.
However, the last line in the sonnet remains the most powerful in re-affirming the themes and images of death in this poem. The “dusk is slow” (11) and the “drawing-down of the blinds” (12) signifies the ultimate death.
The use of a traditional form like a sonnet only serves to emphasize the seriousness of the subject. Wilfred Owen masterfully juxtaposes images of war and church in order to emphasize the solemnity of the death these boys will face. He uses metaphor and simile as well as auditory and visual images in order to allow the reader to truly experience what these boys will face in death.
Owen, Wilfred. Anthem for Doomed Youth.