Anthem for Doomed Youth and Mental Cases serve as an outlet in which Owen himself is trying to make sense of and comprehend the terror he has witnessed within his community. Wilfred Owen’s main concerns in his poetry are the senseless waste of young life, the enduring consequences of war, both individual and societal, and the false and misguided societal beliefs surrounding the horrific war experience.
In Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen challenges the reader and calls for a change of thought, asking them to question what they think they know about the war experience. This poem explores futility and the the waste of young lives. Owen wrote this poem in September of 1917, whilst hospitalized at Craiglockhart War Hospital. He had witnessed the death of his comrades, and had written this poem as a sort of lament for the dead. Whilst commissioned in Craiglockhart Hospital, he made friends with Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow anti-war poet and soldier.
Another one of Owens more confronting poems, Mental Cases, brutally describes the truth of the haunting of war-torn men. He uses horrific imagery of violence and pain to portray this chilling portrait of a veterans suffering. Owen also wrote this poem after spending time in Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he suffered extreme neurasthenia or shell shock, as it’s more commonly known, and personal injury from trench warfare. Both of these poems are written from Owen’s perspective, and are about his personal struggles with these common war-related issues. He is writing as a victim with a first hand experience of the vicious and lasting consequences of war.
These poems central messages and emotions are based in their cultural, political and historical context. The historical context is quite simple. Wilfred Owen’s poems explore war and the pity of war, which he directly experienced as a soldier during World War One. The social and political context are a little more complex. They worked hand in hand, and they were a significant influence of Owen’s poetry. There was a significant disconnect between the widely accepted and misguided societal views on war, and the true, harsh, lived experiences of trench warfare. Families left at home were extremely patriotic and nationalistic, and considered war a glorious endeavour. Even the majority of soldiers originally joined the war effort gleefully with the promise of an adventure. Norton’s Anthology of English Literature says:
“Those poets who were involved on the front, however romantically they may have felt about the war when they first joined up, soon realised its full horror, and this realisation affected both their imaginations and their poetic techniques. They had to find a way of expressing the terrible truths they had experienced”.
Political propaganda that encouraged men to join the troops and painted war as an exciting escapade gave rise to this general misconception. The propaganda and government encouragement created a false sense of hope and excitement associated with war. Owen’s poetry presents the reader with harsh and confronting imagery, which was contrary to the portrayal of war offered by the government and the press. Owen was speaking to a society who had no experience or grasp on the horrors of trench warfare. He was using the medium that he knew well to try and make sense of the horrors he had witnessed and provide some degree of understanding and truth, to an uninformed community. He wanted to present the “pity of war”.
Anthem for Doomed Youth incorporates many poetic devices and techniques that advance the powerful emotions evoked through the poem. The poem is written in sonnet form, which is ironic, as sonnets were normally written as love poems. This irony highlights the pity of the poem. In the first stanza of this poem, there is a fast paced, brutal tone. Owen has used short and sharp alliteration to help paint the scene of a battlefield. For example, ‘the rifles rapid rattle’ uses alliteration that imitates the sound made by a rifle, creating an image of the battlefield. The poems tone changes from the first stanza to the second, shifting from anger and indignation to sorrow and grief. The first stanza is resentful and bitter, Owen expressing his outrage and confusion about the unconscious waste of young life with a bitter passion.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/- Only the monstrous anger of the guns” (S.1, L.1-2).
In these lines, we can recognise that Owen’s tone is sharp and angry, as well as the confusion and self questioning with the use f a question. His use of the phrase “monstrous anger of the guns” disassociates the guns as being an item within the soldiers control, but rather personifies the guns as raging monsters that simply mock the dead soldiers. He is angry and confused, and these lines help express this in new and inventive ways/
The second stanza, however, slows down and takes on a more sombre mood, with Owen exploring the sorrow and grief behind the futility of war with rueful contemplation. Wilfred Owen has used rhetorical questions at the beginning of both stanzas. This is both his way of trying to comprehend and make sense of the terror he has seen, as well as ask the reader to think and question the real cost of war. The opening line of the first stanza immediately challenges and confronts the reader.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? (S.1, L.1)”
The phrase “die as cattle” (S.1, L.1) paints an image of a slaughterhouse, suggesting that those who were part of the millions of deaths are less than human, that they’re death is just one among millions, they’re insignificant or meaningless. This is Owen confronting the reader with the enormity of the loss and the lack of regard for human life. The poem draws comparison between the safety and serenity of home and the horrors of the battlefield. In these lines, Owen provides this contrast through aligning imagery of church and religious services with the harshness of the trenches and the deaths of the soldiers. \”Nor any voice of mourning, save the choirs,-/The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” (S.1, L.6-7). Here, the “demented choirs of wailing shells” refer to the wailing of the bullet shells as the are fired, and relating this sound back to the serenity of church choirs, and church traditions that are used to honour and send off the dead, drawing attention to the brutal murder of the soldiers, and the lack of respect they are treated with.
As the poem winds down, the final line comes into play.
“And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” (S.2, L.6).
The drawing down of blind is symbolic of ending or finishing, referencing in this context to both the ending of the poem and the send-off of the passed soldiers.
In Mental Cases, we can recognise a somewhat similar array of poetic techniques used to enhance the impact of the poem. Some the key ideas and themes explored in this poem are the hell and haunting suffered by the men who survived the trenches and the guilt and remorse that torments these men. One central technique that Owen uses to create these chilling images is the personification of abstract concepts and emotions.
“Misery swelters…. Memory fingers in the hair of their murders”
Here, Owen’s use of personification contributes to a sense that the men are plagued with memories of the terrors from the past. The idea of a memory is depicted almost lover-like, “fingering in the hair of their murders” but only tortures them with painful images of the past. Owen has also used nature as a strong symbol for the anguish of the men.