Anthem for Doomed Youth - Language, tone and structure

Language in Anthem for Doomed Youth

Anthem for Doomed Youth relies heavily on two sets of specialist words for its impact: 

  • Words from the semantic field of funeral rites
  • The vocabulary of war.

Funereal associations

‘Passing bells’ are mentioned in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale (1400) where the characters hear a ‘bell clink / Before a corpse is carried to the grave’. As a result the listeners’ minds are focused on death. In Anthem for Doomed Youth the only sounds which alert us to death are the ‘monstrous anger’ of the guns and the ‘rifle’s rapid rattle’. The use of the adjective ‘monstrous’ adds to the enormity of the sound. We are left with an impression of deafening noise. 

The alliterative ‘r’ and emphatic trochees of the ‘rifle’s rapid rattle’ works as onomatopoeia, allowing us to hear the staccato repeats within the line of verse. Subtle use of alliteration emphasises the pathos and the pity of war. For example, in line 11 Owen describes the pain of separation for those left behind as the substitute for the funeral candle. The eyes ‘shall shine’ with the ‘glimmer of goodbyes’. 

Diction and wordplay

Owen’s diction reflects both realism and romanticism. The archaicorisons’, a word Shakespeare uses, means rather more than ‘mere’ prayers. It has the sense of pleading with the deity, usually for healing, and thus adds an irony as well as an ancient, other-worldly sense to an otherwise all too real scenario. However, the ‘hasty orisons’ are oxymoronic in the sense that what should be heartfelt pleas to God are irreverent and skimpy.

His play on words with ‘pallor’ (meaning paleness), due to grief, and ‘pall’ (a reference to the cloth used to cover a coffin) draws our attention to the fact that the bodies of the ‘doomed youth’ of the poem have no such dignity in death. It also suggests that the grief of those girls left behind will act as a pall for their dead.

Auditory qualities

Owen makes excellent use of open and closed sounds in making the pattern of his line endings. Words such as ‘cattle’ and ‘rattle’ add a hard, short, uncomfortable ‘edge’ to the opening lines. In contrast ‘bells’ and ‘shells’ draw out the lines, ‘shells’ prolonging the agony of the sound of the demented choirs and at the same time making a marked contrast with the regretful ‘bells’. 

In the second half of the poem, the endings of the first four lines employ long vowel sounds: ‘all / pall’, ‘eyes / goodbyes’, ‘minds / blinds’. This makes the reader slow down and creates a reflective, regretful tone. 

Into the short words ending the last two lines Owen packs a great deal of emotion. The initial soft ‘m’ is succeeded by the plosive ‘b’, and both are rounded off by the conclusive ‘nd’ sound of minds and blinds. The final sibilance of the ‘s’ holds our attention and fades away almost wistfully (in a similar fashion to the long sound of the ‘doomed’ adjective of the title). The final line is a series of long-vowelled words reflecting the sad end of the day, end of life and end of hope: ‘Each slow ... drawing-down ... blinds’. The attenuated and alliterative middle phrase allows us to visual the slow, sad action of closing the blinds.



The tone of the poem is set from the moment in the title when Owen uses the word anthem to describe the verse. Of the two dictionary definitions of the word, the second matches the motif of the funeral service which runs through the poem:

  • ‘A musical setting of a religious text to be sung by a choir during a church service, especially in Anglican or Protestant Churches.’

However there is also much of the essence of the first definition in Owen’s purpose: 

  • ‘A rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause.’

Although we can argue against ‘rousing and uplifting’, since the mood is certainly downbeat rather than upbeat, the poem is clearly a ‘song identified with a particular cause.’ 

The solemnity of the language is underlined by Owen’s repeated use of simple negatives ‘Only’, ‘Only’, ‘No’, ‘Nor’, ‘Not’ which toll out through the body of the poem in contrast to the onomatopoeic sounds of the guns and rifle’s rattle.


Many of the funeral rites which Owen uses in this poem are symbolic, yet Owen dismisses them as ‘mockeries’. This is indicative of Owen’s feelings about the religious trappings of death and perhaps his disillusionment with the religion of his youth. Paradoxically he is suggesting the emptiness of the very gestures whose absence he regrets. Owen may have rejected an outward show of faith but some scholars suggest that his belief in God was always part of his conflict with war. The tension between the ‘mockeries’ and the need for dignity contributes to the poem’s power.

Despite the seemingly unrelenting darkness of this poem, it does owe a lot of its power to some subtle contrasts. The aggressive language of the octet, which reflects the conflict, death and destruction of the trenches, is set against the sad, almost feminine language of the sestet with its references to flowers and tenderness.

Investigating language and tone

  • Using coloured pens (perhaps red for positive and black for negative) either write out or underline the words with negative connotations in black.
    • With the red pen, list the words which might in another context have more positive resonances, for example, ‘flowers’
    • Write a couple of sentences as a note to yourself on the impact that so much ‘dark’ language has on the tone of the poem and on you as the reader
  • If you enjoy this sort of research you might find it of some significance to do a word count. How many words are there with positive connotations and how many with negative?

Structure and versification in Anthem for Doomed Youth

This Petrarchan sonnet poses two similar questions, each framed within an octet and sestet. On a very simple level, the questions ask what funeral rites will there be for the masses of men killed in the war; on a deeper level, the questions challenge the waste of life and the lack of dignity in their deaths.


The setting for the first octet is the battle field. The opening question forces the reader to engage with the inhumanity of men going ‘like lambs to the slaughter’. The question’s answer is a negative, to the effect that only the machines of war, ‘guns’ and ‘rifles’ provide any equivalent to funeral rites as they ‘patter out their hasty orisons’. The scene of battle changes with the last line of the octet which moves us from the Western Front to the English counties and the long term effect of grief on those at the Home Front. The first question is reiterated in a similar form but with the added poignancy of ‘to speed them all’ (see Imagery). Back in England, the rituals of mourning are taken up by the sound of bugles, the paleness of ‘girl’s brows’ and the falling of dusk each day, a substitute for the drawing of blinds as a sign of respect.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Print off a copy of the sonnet here. Using a highlighter pen identify the rhymes in the poem.
    • Now look at the way in which Owen links ideas and phrases using different patterns of rhymes.
    • Try to describe what effect this has on how the poem makes you feel. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I think or I feel’ as long as you can evidence this.
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