Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth Notes for students Anthem for doomed Youth 1 Anthem – perhaps best known in the expression The National Anthem; also, an important religious song (often expressing joy); here, perhaps, a solemn song of celebration 2 passing-bells – a bell tolled after someone’s death to announce the death to the world 3 patter out – rapidly speak 4 orisons – prayers, here funeral prayers 5 mockeries – ceremonies which are insults. Here Owen seems to be suggesting that the Christian religion, with its loving God, can have nothing to do with the deaths of so many thousands of men 6 demented – raving mad 7 bugles – a bugle is played at military funerals (sounding the last post) 8 shires – English counties and countryside from which so many of the soldiers came 9 candles – church candles, or the candles lit in the room where a body lies in a coffin 10 pallor – paleness 11 dusk has a symbolic significance here 12 drawing-down of blinds – normally a preparation for night, but also, here, the tradition of drawing the blinds in a room where a dead person lies, as a sign to the world and as a mark of respect.
The coming of night is like the drawing down of blinds. 1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean It is sweet and right. The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country 2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.) 3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer 4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air 5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle 6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells 7 poison gas.
From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned 8 the early name for gas masks 9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue 10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks 11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling 12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth 13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea 14 keen Disabled ‘He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark’ (L.1) The immediate appearance of ‘dark’, ‘grey’ , and ‘shivered’ sets up the isolation of the wounded soldier. It strikes a strong comparison to the warmth of the second stanza. Return to poem 3.’used to swing so gay’ (L.7) The next few lines mirror the tone of such poems as ‘The Ruin’, an Old English poem, in which the poet (anonymous) looks on a ruined building, now frost-bitten and decrepit, imagining the sound and warmth that once rang through its walls. Return to poem 4.’glow-lamps’ and ‘girls glanced’ (L.8 & L9) Both are linked effectively by the use of alliteration. Return to poem 5.’before he threw away his knees’ (L.10) The implication that this was a needless loss (sacrifice) is reinforced by Ll.23-4 where the wounded soldier fails to remember why he joined up, pointing only to a distant sense of duty, and euphoria after the football match.
Fussell notes that: ‘Owen’s favourite sensuous device is the formula ‘his – ‘, with the blank usually filled with a part of the body.’ (p. 292). Return to poem 6.’Now he will never feel again how slim/Girls’ waists are’ (L.11 & L.12) Showing not only the physical loss of his arm, but also the psychological scars as the soldier knows he will be shunned by women from now on. Return to poem 7.’younger than his youth’ (L.15) The reversal is total. The implication is that his face is now older than his youth. Return to poem 8.’He’s lost his colour very far from here’ (L.17) C.
Day Lewis cites this line as an example of one of the great memorable lines written by Owen. It is an example of ‘deliberate, intense understatements – the brave man’s only answer to a hell which no epic words could express..more poignant and more rich with poetic promise than anything else that has been done during this century.’ HFP, P.17 Return to poem 9.’spurted from his thigh’ (L.20) Clearly a parody of sexual ejaculation. Owen uses erotic language at this point but referring to blood instead of semen. The irony being that here we have the loss of life (the soldier loses his limbs, and his senses) as opposed to the creation of life. The sexual imagery plays on the continual point that his injuries, resulting from his enlisting in order to please his girlfriend and other admirers (ll.
25-6), has resulted in him being abhorrent to women. Return to poem 10.’ a bloodsmear down his leg,/After the matches, carried shoulder-high’ (L.21 & L.22) Again Owen uses irony effectively here. We are already aware that the soldier has lost an arm and his legs, yet here we are told that before the War he felt proud to have an injury (albeit obtained on the football field), and to be carried shoulder-high (for reasons of celebration as opposed to helplessness). The concept of reversal is again used: sporting hero to cripple, handsome to ‘queer disease’ (L.13), colour to dark, warmth to cold. Return to poem 11.’a god in kilts’ (L.25) An indication that the soldier was a member of one of the Scottish regiments (repeated in ll.32-6).
This also implies that the soldier joined up for reasons of vanity. Return to poem 12.’giddy jilts’ (L.27) A Scottish term for a young woman. Return to poem 13.’Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years’ (L.29) The sadness of the soldier’s plight is heightened. Clearly he was under-aged when he enlisted and therefore is still young.
Return to poem 14.’Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal’ (L.37) Recalls the image of the football match earlier. L.22 implies that he was carried from the field shoulder-high, possibly as the result of scoring the winning goal. Here, despite having achieved far more, for far greater a loss than a ‘blood- smeared leg’, the crowd’s reception is more hollow. Return to poem 15.’do what things the rules consider wise’ (L.41) The soldier’s passivity is complete. The fine young athlete has been reduced to a state of dependency on others and helplessness (heightened by the pitiful closing repetition of ‘Why don’t they come?’). The stanza has him waiting for others to do things for him, he ‘spends a few sick years’, ‘takes whatever pity’ others choose to offer him; he is passed over by the women’s attentions, as he bemoans the cold and hopes that someone will put him to bed.
Return to poem 16.’Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes/Passed from him to the strong men that were whole’ (L.43 & L.44) Repeating again the loss of the soldier, this time in his attractiveness to the opposite sex. ‘Whole’ implying that he is incomplete, less than a man. ‘Ironically he is now dependent on young women to put him to bed, in contrast with his prewar virile manhood when he could expect to take women to bed’ . SPP, P.215 Return to poem 17.’..Why don’t they come’ (L.45 & L.46) Dominic Hibberd has noted that this line can be linked to the recuiting poster of 1914, ‘Will they never come?’ (see ‘Some Contemporary Allusions in Poems by Rosenberg, Owen and Sassoon’, Notes and Queries August (1979), p.333. Several recruiting posters used the motif of linking sport to the army, and there were numerous recruiting drives at soccer matches.