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Wilfred Owen

Anthem for Doomed Youth

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1920

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Summary and Study Guide


“Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a sonnet written by English poet Wilfred Owen. It is an elegy or lament for the many thousands of young soldiers killed in World War I. Owen served in the British Army and was killed in action at the age of 25, just one week before the war ended in November 1918. The poem was completed in September 1917 and published in Poems in 1920—two years after Owen’s death.

Owen is often regarded as the finest of the English World War I poets. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is typical of his work, which brought the cruel reality—as well as the folly of the war—into clear focus through technically skilled and innovative poetry. Owen’s mission was to write about what he called “the pity of war”—especially modern war waged with the kind of deadly weaponry that the world had not before experienced.

Poet Biography

Wilfred Owen was born on March 18, 1893, in the county of Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. He was the oldest of four children born to Thomas Owen, a railway station master, and Susan Owen. The family moved to Birkenhead in the northwest, where Owen attended school until 1907. They moved to Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and Owen graduated from Shrewsbury Technical College in 1911. He became a lay assistant to a Church of England vicar in Dunsden, Oxfordshire. He helped care for the poor and sick but chose not to pursue a career in the church. Owen began writing poetry at this time. In 1913, he returned home to recover from a respiratory illness, after which he taught English at the Berlitz School of Languages in France and then spent another year in France tutoring two boys in a Catholic family.

Owen returned to England in 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I, and enlisted in the army. In June 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and in late December he left to fight in France. He participated in difficult marches on muddy roads and came under enemy fire—including a poison-gas attack. In February, he attended an infantry school in Amiens, and the following month was hospitalized for a concussion after he fell into a shell-hole trying to locate an exhausted soldier in the dark. April was also arduous, and Owen and his men came under heavy shelling. Owen was sent to a hospital in May suffering bad headaches. He was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

A couple of months after his arrival, Siegfried Sassoon was admitted to the hospital. Sassoon, seven years older than Owen, was also a poet and a soldier in WWI. The men became friends and with Sassoon’s encouragement, Owen began to blossom as a poet, finding his own voice and writing brutally honest poems about his experiences in the war. He regarded the war as evil and a terrible waste of human life. Owen experienced inner conflict, however, because he believed he could not speak for the men involved in the war if he remained a noncombatant.

Owen therefore returned to war-torn France in September 1918. In October, he led his company in an attack on German strongholds in northern France, during which they captured a German machine gun. For this action, Owen was awarded the Military Cross and cited for “conspicuous gallantry.” A few weeks later, on November 4, Owen was killed during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal in France. This was only seven days before the armistice was declared and the war ended. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Owen’s mother did not receive the news of her son’s death until Armistice Day, and the telegram was delivered to her home in Shrewsbury as church bells rang out in celebration of the coming of peace.

Poem Text

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Owen, Wilfred. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” 1920. Poetry Foundation.


The poem is about what form of remembrance the many thousands of soldiers killed in World War I will receive. No bells will ring out to mark their deaths at the front. No prayers will be said for them, either. The only sounds will be the roar of guns and rifles, which the speaker ironically presents as bells and prayers, respectively. The only mourning will be the wailing sound made by the shells, which the speaker, again employing irony, presents as a choir. However, the speaker also suggests that formal religious rituals, even if they were to occur, would not do the men justice. The last line of the octave—an eight-line stanza—which states that bugles will be calling for the soldiers from the towns and villages from which they come, introduces a turn in both thought and setting. The final six lines (sestet, or six-line stanza) consider what form of memorial would be best for these dead and dying men.

The setting is likely in England and the focus on the families of the bereaved. Again, traditional religious elements in a funeral service are found wanting. Boys may hold candles, but better than candlelight is the light that shines, perhaps also with some tears, in the boys’ eyes as they say their goodbyes to the dead. Rather than a cloth draped over a coffin, the grieving pallor of the men’s wives and girlfriends will be a memorial. The patience shown by those who remained at home, tenderly thinking of their loved ones as they waited to hear from them, and who now will grieve them, will serve the dead men better than flowers. Finally, the dead will be memorialized as evening each day falls and window blinds are closed. These simple actions will inherit a kind of ritualistic quality.

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