Kevin Saving on
'Anthem For Doomed Youth'
by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
What passing bells for those 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 glimmer 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.
Wilfred Owen was probably experiencing more than his fair share of 'anxiety clusters' when in the September of 1917 he wrote the poem quoted above (the earliest of his truly mature works). Firstly, as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment he was afforded only the status, in the charming terminology of the time, of a 'temporary gentleman' (although his mother, Susan, was very 'class-conscious', his family had for some generations been of solid yeoman stock). Secondly, as a repressed homosexual, he would have been very aware of the societal stigma - not to say legal sanctions - implicit in any overt display of homoerotic affection. Lastly, as a Mental patient in Craiglockhart war hospital - required to wear a blue armband when visiting the nearby city of Edinburgh - he'd have known that a large question -mark was being placed against both his physical courage and his right to lead men.
24 years of age, with no conventional officer-class background of public school or university to bolster his self-confidence, Owen had already endured the experiences which were to fuel his later poems 'Exposure', 'Futility' and 'The sentry' (in January, around Serre in the valley of the river Ancre) and 'Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori' (in a gas attack). Two more recent traumas had caused his referral to Craiglockhart: a mysterious fall into a cellar where he'd lain, possibly for upwards of a day, with concussion -and (a month later) a 'near-miss' shell which had blown him into the air and rendered him briefly unconscious. Following this latter incident, Owen seems to have cowered in a cutting for several days, surrounded both by corrugated iron and the newly-disinterred remains of a brother officer.
After Casualty Clearing Station Owen found himself classified as a 'neurasthenic' (suffering from what today might popularly be called 'shell-shock' or, clinically, 'post-traumatic stress disorder'). His army file states that he was 'observed to be shaky and tremulous, and his conduct and manner were peculiar and his memory was confused'.
Rather fortunate to be placed in the charge of Dr Arthur Brock (whose humane methods were very much at variance with some of the 'treatments' dished-out to the non-commissioned soldiery), Owen was encouraged to immerse himself in amateur dramatics and editorship of the hospital's magazine, The Hydra. An even more propitious meeting occurred when captain Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., was finessed into Craiglockhart. An upper-class, previously published, well-connected, heroically decorated and handsome figure, Sassoon -who became the acme of everything Owen admired - was another 'closet-gay', who'd rebelled against the conduct of the war by dropping his Military Cross into the Mersey and writing an anti-war protest letter which was subsequently read out in the House of Commons. 'Mad Jack' (as his men named him) Sassoon was to be probably the most important influence of Wilfred Owen's short life. Some of the amendments to the early draughts of 'Anthem' (there were seven in all) are written in his, Sassoon's, hand -indeed, the word 'Anthem' was the latter's suggestion.
It is seldom acknowledged just what a hotch-potch of imagery and influences 'Anthem' really is. To start with, Owen quarried his own (1916) draught-poem, 'A New Heaven'. Keats (another enduring 'hero' for Owen) had written - in 'To Autumn' - the line 'Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn'. 'Monstrous' guns' borrows from Beatrix Brice's once-influential, now forgotten, 'To the Vanguard' (1916) and Ian Hay's (1915) novel The First Hundred Thousand (about a 'Kitchener' battalion earlier in the war) includes the sentence 'a machine gun begins to patter out a stuttering malediction'. 'Doomed' youth was originally 'Dead' youth, and the monstrous anger of 'the' guns was previously 'our' guns (Sassoon urging that the perceived anti-German sentiment needed diluting). Finally, the last line of 'Anthem' echoes and elaborates Laurence Binyon's (1914) 'For The Fallen'.
A variation of the 'English' or 'Shakespearean' sonnet, the poem utilises full end-rhymes instead of the new-fangled 'para-rhymes' (his acquaintance, Edmund Blunden's 1931 coinage) with which he'd been tinkering around this time. His 'Song of Songs' - written the previous month - is the first known example of a poem whose rhyme-scheme is worked exclusively around 'half-rhymes' (as they've come to be known) - although ancient Welsh, and recent French experimental verse, had toyed haphazardly with the idea.
Wilfred Owen was to return to active service and win his own Military Cross, for gallantry, in October, 1918. One month later (and exactly one week before the Armistice) he would be killed, alongside many of his comrades, whilst attempting to cross the (militarily) 'virtually impossible' defences of the Oise-Sambre canal. In his own lifetime only five of his verses had been published (two of these in The Hydra). For many years accorded the status of a minor poet, it was only in the 1960s - especially after Benjamin Britten's use of the poems in his celebrated War Requiem (1962) - that Owen's work began to receive greater critical attention, and that the writer himself gained, retrospectively, what he'd always most desired: recognition as 'one of the ones'.
Barker, P., The Regenration Trilogy, Penguin (1998) (three novels, but well-researched ones)
Egremont, M., Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography, Picador 2005)
Hibberd,D., Wilfred Owen, A New Biography, Weidenfeld and Nicholson (2002)
Stallworthy, J., The Poems of Wilfred Owen, Chatto and Windus (1990)
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