What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? (1)
-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; (5)
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 (10)
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. (14)
Originally published in 1920
Analysis of Poem:
This poem is specifically about the death of a soldier and the notification of that death to his family. This is the reality of war. The word "anthem" has a few different meanings, the one that seems to be the most pertinent to this poem is: an unusually rousing popular song that typifies or is identified with a particular subculture, movement, or point of view. Soldiers of WWI would definitely identify with this poem; no one else (i.e. civilians) could understand everything that they went through during the war. They are fighting a war without knowing the real reasons behind it. They were often poorly equipped. They are the doomed youth of their day.
Line 1: "passing-bells" is a tolling of a bell to announce a soul is passing, or has passed, from its body. It is also a tolling during the passing of a funeral procession to the grave, or during the actual funeral ceremony.
Line 2: "anger of the guns" is an example of personification; attributing human qualities to a nonhuman object or force.
Lines 1-2: These men don't get to have a conventional death; they die in a big field surrounded by other rotting corpses. They don't get to hear the bells calling them to heaven, because the sound of the angry guns is too loud.
Line 3: "rifles' rapid rattle" is an example of alliteration; the repetition of an initial consonant sound or consonant cluster in consecutive or closely positioned words.
Line 4: "orisons" are prayers.
Lines 3-4: The only prayers these dead and dying men receive are the ones from the guns. The guns take your life and read you your last rights.
Line 5: "mockeries" are something ludicrously futile or unsuitable.
Line 6: "choirs" he is talking about the metaphorical choir of the sounds of the guns firing.
Line 7: "demented choir" is another example of personification. Although choir is a term used to describe a group of people it is not used in this poem as such; instead it is used to describe the sound that the guns make. Demented is a term that is used to describe someone who is insane or mad; so linking these two words together creates a personification.
Line 8: "shires" are counties in England. Bugles are used by the armed forces to relay instructions to the soldiers. The phrase "sad shires" is another example of personification, shires cannot be sad because they do not possess human qualities of emotion.
Lines 5-8: These men don't have to go through the mockery of religious rights; religion is supposed to be about peace and loving your neighbor not about killing them. It would be a mockery to bury them with the same rights as others, because they have basically been trained to take on the devil spirit; killing unscrupulously. They don't hear the sounds of loved ones buzzing around them filled with sorrow; all they hear are the sounds of war, death, and bugles.
Lines 9-11: When a soldier dies in battle it is a common practice to send other soldiers to deliver the news to the family of the fallen soldier. The men who did this job often did not have to say anything to the families; the look in the soldier's eyes or even his presence told them what they longed not to hear.
Line 12: "pallor" means paleness in this poem. "Pall" is a heavy cloth draped over a coffin; it has the power to produce an effect of gloom and grief.
Lines 12-14: This is in a sense the funeral scene; there is mourning and flowers, all of which the soldier did not receive out on the battle field. The girl's pall is so great that it could be used to cover the soldier's coffin. The "drawing-down of blinds" signifies both death and grief.
Owen, Wilfred. "Anthem for Doomed Youth." Norton Anthology of English Literature: Twentieth Century and After. Vol. F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1971-2.