Anthem for Doomed Youth

The First World War is ancient history now. After all, it ended 90 years ago. November 11 marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. Remarkably there are still some old soldiers from that long-ago war. Three centenarians representing the British army, navy and air force attended the ceremony in London, reported the BBC.

Remarkable too is some of the poetry written during the war. Poetry written by soldiers – the war poets. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Julian Grenfell… The Times Archive Blog tells the sad story of how Grenfell and his younger brother both died in the war. Brooke died on the way to Gallipoli. Owen and Rosenberg both died in the final year of the war.

Owen’s nightmarish Strange Meeting is perhaps the most powerful poem about the First World War, conveying the violence and the futility. Brooke’s The Soldier is anthologised for its idyllic evocation of England. But another war poem that I have never been able to forget is Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. It’s shorter than Strange Meeting and elegiac in tone.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
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;
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
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.

And here’s The Soldier by Rupert Brooke.

The Soldier
By Rupert Brooke (1887–1915)

IF I should die, think only this of me;    
That there’s some corner of a foreign field    
That is for ever England. There shall be    
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;    
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,            
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,    
A body of England’s breathing English air,    
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,    
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less     
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;    
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;    
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,    
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.    

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