Anthem for Doomed Youth - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Anthem for Doomed Youth

Anthem for Doomed Youth relies heavily on the use of imagery from Christian rituals. By juxtaposing the symbols which accompany Christian burial e.g. passing bells, orisons and candles, with the images of the slaughter house (‘die as cattle’), Owen shocks the reader with the horror of war. 

Owen turns each rite and ritual on its head:

Anthem - The choice of the term ‘Anthem’ for this sonnet would for Owen’s original readers have immediately created an image of a church service with choirs. Having set up this association, Owen then explores it further in the grim imagery of the guns and rifles and ‘shrill shells’ which are the only sounds to commemorate the death of the ‘doomed youth’. 

The passing bell - a sign to the community that someone has died and in early times a signal that prayers for the departed should be said, it no longer sounds. Its human and divine function is replaced ‘only’ by gun and rifle fire. The sole choir to sing the ‘Anthem’ is a ‘demented’ one of shell fire, albeit ‘wailing.’ The personification of the weapons of war is chilling in its lack of humanity.

Cattle - In the opening line Owen immediately presents us with a simile for the ‘doomed youth’ who ‘die as cattle’. The image is of the slaughter house: blood, stench and fear, the lack of individuality and inhumanity all attach to the simile. Owen reverses the poetic device of personification here: men become de-personified, become animals. There are no ‘passing bells’ for de-humanised troops who go to their deaths like animals to slaughter

Armaments - Owen’s extended image in the first stanza of his ‘Anthem’ revolves around the personification of the armaments of war. It is these weapons which give voice to the bells and prayers which Owen implies should be part of the mourning process for the dead. Ironically their sound comes over as inhuman and pitiless. The ‘orisons’ which should be reverent are ‘hasty and ‘demented’. The ‘Monstrous anger of the guns’ gives these inanimate objects the human emotion of anger, the rifles’ stutter and the shells’ wail provide the ‘voice of mourning’. The irony lies in the fact that the very instruments of death give the ‘only’ equivalent of ‘orisons’ or ‘anthems’. 

Choirs - The emphasis on the lack of the human voice in mourning is underpinned by the shrill demented choirs. Owen’s use of enjambement from line 6 to line 7 forces our sense of ‘the choirs’ from being reverent ecclesiastical choirs to the manic mechanical personification of the shells.

Calling - Two powerful pieces of personification add to the pathos of the final line of the first stanza: 

  • Bugles ‘call’ for the doomed youths from ‘sad’ English counties (‘shires’). The call of the bugles is ambiguous. They can be seen to call for the men to return home, as well as call for them because they never will return
  • In the absence of appropriate official grief, the very slices of countryside become mourners. Owen uses simple alliteration designating them as ‘sad shires’ which, unlike the guns and shells, are impotent. 

The imagery, like the language which is an integral part of it, changes with the second stanza. The ‘doomed youth’ are now more visible. Owen no longer drowns out our awareness of the dead with the sounds of battle, exchanging auditory images for poignant visual ones:

Candles – these are an ancient Christian symbol of hope in the afterlife, and would have been held by an acolyte and set beside the coffin as a promise of salvation. In their absence, the flickering farewell memories are in the eyes of friends and brothers left behind.

Pallor / pall – The pale brows of the grief-stricken girls who are left behind by the dying boys become a substitute for the pall. This cover was used to deflect the mourners’ thoughts from the raw reality of the coffin and its contents, freeing the mind to think of higher things.

Flowers - The funeral wreaths and flowers of the average Edwardian funeral were a symbol of remembrance and respect, but are conspicuous by their absence on the battlefield. These are replaced with the ‘tenderness of patient minds’ symbolising the pain which will live on into the future for those who mourn the loss of the ‘doomed youth’.

Drawn blinds - The last line holds the final poignant symbol of mourning: the practice of closing curtains and blinds to symbolise a death is undertaken by nature itself. Owen’s final line thereby also echoes that of Laurence Binyon from his 1914 poem, For the Fallen:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Anthem for Doomed Youth

  • Make a list of the sound imagery which Owen employs in this poem
  • Make a list of the visual imagery he creates.
    • Write a sentence or two on how effective each of the above techniques is in creating the mood of the poem.

Themes in Anthem for Doomed Youth

The horror of war and the pity of war are two major themes in this poem. The pathos which permeates this sonnet comes from the horror of the deaths of the young men who ‘die like cattle’ and from the young men and women who are left to mourn them.

Investigating themes in Anthem for Doomed Youth

  • The horror of war and the pity of war are two major themes in this poem. Compare the way in which Owen presents these important themes in Anthem for Doomed Youth with his poem Futility
    • Look at the way in which Owen uses the two halves of the sonnet, both in Anthem for Doomed Youth and in Futility, to carry the themes.
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