‘When I read that a shell fell into a group of 16 schoolboys and killed fifteen, I raved. Talk about rumours of wars and earthquakes in divers places… The beginning of the End must be ended, and the beginning of the middle of the end is now.’
Reading what Owen wrote to his mother on 21 December 1914 about the Germans’ shelling of Scarborough when sixteen died and 443 were wounded, to ascribe this sonnet to that same month seems entirely plausible. Hibberd suggests it was Owen’s first poem about the war, while Stallworthy puts it among the batch of sonnets Wilfred showed Sassoon on 21 August 1917. But what did Owen himself think about it when revising it three years later?
Only lines 5 and 7 break the otherwise regular iambic metre. The rhymes too are conventional: no subtle pararhymes here. Of more relevance is how nearly its intention conforms to received opinion on the war at that time, as exemplified by such as Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell.
The contrast between the diction on the octet (lines 1 - 8) and in the sestet (9 - 14) is very marked. The octet has ‘whirled’, ‘rend’, ‘down-hurled’, words indicative of destructive force; then ‘famine’ and ‘rots’, destruction’s legacies: and ‘wails’, the human response; all results of that fearsome over-reaching word ‘tornado’. Here indeed,
‘…the winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.’
Owen knew his Shelley. He’d been given the complete poetical works for his 21st birthday on 18 March 1914. In THE REVOLT OF ISLAM, canto 9 stanza 25 he would have read
‘This is the winter of the world; and here
We die, even as the winds of Autumn fade…’
Which he was to recall in a letter written on his 23rd birthday,
‘Now is the winter of the world….’
words which might have been even more apt a year later during his experiences in the trenches.
How different when we come to the sestet which completes the metaphor of seasonal change. Spring blooms, summer blazes, harvest is ‘rich with all increase’ until spring ushered in once more. War destroys but peace follows and renews.
Unfortunately a price has to be paid, as Owen acknowledges in his final line and the allusion to ‘blood for seed’. If Brooke could hardly have written Owen’s lines 1 - 8, he might well have conceived something along the lines of 9 - 14. Brooke knew all about sacrificing one’s life for one’s country.
‘…There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed….’
he wrote in THE SOLDIER, a giving back that will lead to
‘….hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’
Are Brooke’s thoughts Owen’s too? Or is it possible that that little word ‘but’ beginning line 13 suggests a turning away from the spirit of hopeful self-sacrifice, and an interpretation of ‘blood for seed’ as a prescience of a very different, and as yet unfashionable, attitude to the war.
Whatever the answer, we may feel that the poem’s rather high-flown self-conscious tone differs markedly from those that have earned Owen his international repute; a ‘made’ poem perhaps, rather than ‘felt’; a period piece that allows for just a grain of ambiguity in that final line,
‘Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.
Anthem For Doomed Youth
The redrafting of this poem with the help and encouragement of Siegfried Sassoon, whom Owen met while convalescing in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital in August 1917, marked a turning point in Owen’s life as a poet. A remarkable writing period was just beginning. In sonnet form, ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH is an elegy, a lament for the dead, a judgement on Owen’s experience of war rather than an account of the experience itself. Doomed youth is right. These were young men, some very young.
Lines 1-8 (the octet) contain a catalogue of the sounds of war, the weapons of destruction - guns, rifles, shells - linked, ironically, to religious imagery, until in line 8 we switch from the fighting front to Britain’s "sad shires" where loved ones mourn. The tone now drops from bitter passion to rueful contemplation, the mood sombre, the pace slower, until by line 14 the poem quietly closes with "the drawing down of blinds".
In this octet the devilish clamour of trench warfare is carefully set against the subdued atmosphere of church. These religious images: passing bells, orisons (prayers), voice of mourning, choirs, candles, holy glimmers, symbolise the sanctity of life - and death - while suggesting also the inadequacy, the futility, even meaninglessness, of organised 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. Despite Owen’s orthodox Christian upbringing, how his faith actually developed during the last years is far from clear, and it is hard not to think that he was not remembering in this poem those members of the clergy, and they were many, who were preaching not the gospel of peace but of war.
Right at the start the simile "die as cattle" jolts us with its image of the slaughterhouse and the idea of men being treated as less than human. "Anger of the guns" (line 2): were the men behind the guns angry? Probably not. Hatred of the enemy was more common among civilians than the troops. Onomatopoeia, alliteration and personification come together in line 3 in a brilliant sound image.
The juxtaposition of "choirs" and "wailing shells" is a startling metaphor, God’s world and the Devil’s both as one; after which line 8 leads into the sestet with the contrasted, muted sound of the Last Post.
Religious images and allusions dominate lines 9-14. Forget about altar boys and candle bearers, says Owen. These have nothing to do with the real rites. Look in their eyes and in the ashen faces of their womenfolk to learn the truth about war.
In line 12, "pallor" - "pall" (paleness-coffin cloth) is almost an example of Owen’s use of pararhyme (half rhyme), a poetic device which may give a downbeat, lowering effect or creates an impression of solemnity. "Flowers" (line 13) suggest beauty but also sadness, again a word that runs counter to the pandemonium of the first eight lines.
Aptly, dusk is falling in the last line and speaks of finality. The dusk is slow, for that is how time passes for those who mourn, and with the drawing down of blinds and the attendant sadness we may think of a house in Shrewsbury’s Monkmoor Road where at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a telegram was delivered that informed Wilfred Owen’s parents of his death just a week earlier.