Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is essentially in the sonnet-form. The poem is a song eulogizing the youth emblematic of fresh spirit, fortitude and promises. In a way, ironically, it does point to the speaker himself who died at the early age of 25 (on 4 November 1918).
Owen was a young officer in the trench warfare of 1917-1918. He was shot a week before the end of the First World War as he led his men across the canal. The speaker asserts that “passing bells” could not hail or signal the death of these youth who died as ‘cattle’. The word ‘cattle’ utilized here is indeed significant. It is a common noun that does not attribute any sort of individuality to the youth as a whole. Furthermore, it is a collective noun indicating that none of the youth possessed an identity of his own. There were rather seen as animals, irrational creatures to be disregarded as they simply did not seem to exist. The youth are murdered just as cattle were mass-slaughtered.
What dominates the picture is the ‘monstrous’ sounds of guns. The adjective ‘monstrous’ alludes to the towering effect of the guns’ sounds and their dreadful attributes to the extent of paralyzing life. The ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle also foregrounds the scene. Note that though the word ‘stuttering‘ refers to the sound of the rifles; it also implies how due to this phenomenon, the continuity of life has been affected. The term ‘rattle’ is a juxtaposition of violence against innocence, the rattle of the rifles against a child’s rattle. Alliteration and onomatopoeia are used to reinforce the idea of sound and repetition.
The word “orison” has the following meanings:
orison – reverent petition to a deity
-prayer wheel – a cylinder with prayers written on it; each revolution counts as uttering the prayers
-asking, request – the verbal act of requesting
-benediction, blessing – a ceremonial prayer invoking divine protection
-collect – a short prayer generally preceding the lesson in the Church of Rome or the Church of England
-commination – prayers proclaiming God’s anger against sinners; read in the Church of England on Ash Wednesday
-deprecation – a prayer to avert or remove some evil or disaster
-intercession – a prayer to God on behalf of another person
-invocation, supplication – a prayer asking God’s help as part of a religious service
-requiescat – a prayer for the repose of the soul of a dead person (http://www.thefreedictionary.com)
All meanings seem to be valid here. Their ‘orisons’ were hasty as they knew that the time attributed to them was very little. They did not possess time for even mockeries as their stipulated time was up. Neither prayers nor bells could save them; it underlines the inability of the Church and the State to save them in this regard.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
There was no voice of mourning save the choirs. They were not even provided with a decent funeral. The choirs are the frenzied sounds of the wailing shells; and the trumpeting-announcements summoning them. Ironically, his parents received the telegram regarding his death as the armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918. The octet has the conspicuous sounds of the battle-the dominating cacophony. And the sestet possesses the all-pervading silence expressing immense anguish.
No candles would be lit in their commemoration.Candles are usually lit in the church for the lost ones with the hope that in the after-life he may conveniently ‘speed’ his way. There are no candles for these soldiers; only the glimmer in their eyes to communicate their last word. They may not be endowed with a proper burial, they will not have a pall (white sheet) placed over their coffin as a mark of dignity and respect. The only pall would be the paleness of their beloved ones left behind. The angst of the mourners would be such that even their brows would be pale with grief.
They would not get flowers as in a funeral, but their tribute would be the tender feelings that people harbour for them. The thoughts like the wreath are a mark of respect. Traditionally, the final funeral custom has been the “drawing down of blinds.” Here, instead of the blinds being drawn down for them, the closing day would mark the finale. It would thus be a more natural rendition of the funeral.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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