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A Comparison of Two Antiwar Poems

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“War is Hell,” admitted General W.T. Sherman during the bloody American Civil War. The allegedly “Pacifist” President Woodrow (“He kept us out of war”) Wilson's Great War “to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy” was no different in that respect. But this time many among the “cannon-fodder” of World War I (1914-1918) openly dissented from their belicose governments and turned to composing rebellious antiwar poetry to voice their profound anguish, indignation, and disgust at this man-made horror. Other WWI soldiers even turned their army-issued rifles on their hated, glory-crazed, and war-profiteering rulers, culminating in Tzarist Russia's Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Wilfred Owen (killed during the last week of fighting) and Siegfried Sassoon were two enlisted British officers who published very popular antiwar poems that openly defied the virulent war propaganda of Briton's Imperial government and the established Church, both of which were trying to convince young Britons that it is noble and glorious to fight and die for “God, King, and country.” In this sense, the antiwar verses of these two soldier-poets are particularly noteworthy because they openly rebelled against the Empire's long-standing nationalistic ethos and militarist tradition as exemplified by two memorable lines penned by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Imperial Poet Laureate—“Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.”

It is interesting to know why these two highly-decorated army officers risked being denounced as traitors to their country or even court-martialed for undermining the war effort. Siegfried Sassoon explains his motivation in an open letter protesting the war that was read in the House of Commons on 30 July 1917 and published in The Times of London the next day, as documented by Bryan Rivers of Universite de Saint-Boniface/the University of Manitoba in his short article "A Drawing-Down of Blinds": "I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I believe that the war has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them." (quoted in Rivers 410-411)

This comparative analysis will discuss and contrast the rather similar antiwar messages of Wilfred Owen's “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and Siegfried Sassoon's “They,” both of which were written in 1917. These two poems share a common theme and even a common topic, depicting and condemning the brutality of war and militarism, as well as the Imperial officialdom's inhumanity to the “helpless” rank-and-file soldier. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” laments the wanton destruction of the wartime “Lost Generation” during this senseless conflict, in which nearly a million Britons lost their lives. “They” attacks much more directly the strident, heartless, and jingoistic attitude of the official Anglican Church towards the Great War's butchery, which was wasting the lives of so many of the Church's young and innocent parishioners.

“Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen's tragically-titled elegy for the war dead, consists of fourteen lines, each with a variable number of syllables (usually ten), composed mostly in iambic pentameter. This quasi-English sonnet has an unusual rhyme scheme of abab cdcd effe gg and is replete with violent imagery, war cacophony, emotional metaphors, harsh musical rhythms, personifications, simile, alliteration, assonance, and the masterful choice of funerary words like “passing-bells,” “choirs,” “prayers,” “candles,” and “bells” to communicate to the reader a sorrowful message about the cruelty of war and the ugliness of soldiers' violent death on the battlefield.

The elegy opens with a mournful rhetorical question and a poignant simile, implying that the soldiers fighting at the front were being butchered like animals in a slaughterhouse: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" (line 1). Rivers, in his short article "Those Who Die As Cattle," writes that "In this graphic image the battle-fields of France are reduced to abattoirs where soldiers, like helpless oxen, are herded to mass slaughter" (142). Rivers even quotes from Owen's letter to Siegfried Sassoon, in which a similar image is used to describe his arrival at the Western Front in France: "...I am among the herds again, a Herdsman; and a Shepherd of sheep that do not know my voice" (quoted in "Those Who Die As Cattle" 145). The octave offers a vivid contrast between its religious imagery of traditional mourning rites and the ghastly images and allusions of untimely, violent death in the trenches. In place of the comforting consolation of "passing-bells," "choirs," "prayers," "voice of mourning," "bells," "orizons" (prayers), or even the eulogizing "mockeries" for the fallen soldiers (1, 4, 5 and 6), there are "only" the cacophonous metaphors of deadly military violence and gruesome death, reinforced by literary devices like personification, onomatopoeia, assonance, and alliteration (of /r/ /d/ /t/ sounds). Lines 2, 3, 7 and 8 are probably the best examples of the poem's incomparable artistric mastery in portraying the hellish terrors of trench warfare: "Only the monstrous anger of the guns” (2), “Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle” (3), “The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” (7), “And bugles calling for them from sad shires” (8). The octave asserts ruefully and pessimistically that the war dead are, in fact, not honored at all: “No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells/Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs” (5-6). Apart from a few somber words or a passage or two from the Bible read by some junior officer at their mass graveside, scant official tribute is paid to their ultimate sacrifice or indeed to the destroyed sanctity of their lives.

The elegy's turn (Volta) comes at the end of line 8, as its imagery and tone both shift in lines 9-14, compared to lines 1-8. The octave's impassioned voice and harsh war images are replaced by the sestet's more melancholic tone, slower rhythm, and contemplative funerary silence. The poet somberly laments the tragic absence of any dignified funeral rites and ceremonies to honor the dead soldiers, who will obviously end up all buried in an unmarked mass grave near the trenches: “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” (9-11). In other words, their surviving fellow-soldiers will hold no wax “candles” “in their hands,” but only “the holy glimmers of goodbyes” (yet another religious image and metaphor) flickering like candles “in their eyes.” (As shown in many WWI documentaries, the remains of many of the dead British soldiers will be reburied in unnamed individual graves only after the end of the war).

"Anthem for Doomed Youth" concludes with three touching final lines: "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” (12-14). Instead of the traditional coffin lid (“pall”) and funeral “flowers,” the dead soldiers will be remembered and commemorated only in the agonized “patient minds” of their ashen-faced girlfriends or wives. Rivers explains that its concluding image of “slow dusk” as “a drawing-down of blinds” is an allusion "to the common British practice of drawing window blinds to indicate that a household was in mourning. During the First World War, because British regiments were recruited locally, this custom often had a strong visual impact when a regiment suffered severe casualties and entire communities were consequently affected. In London, for example, after a major battle in France, almost all the houses on some streets had the blinds drawn." (“A Drawing-Down of Blinds" 409)

Despite all its devilish noises of war and blazing weaponry, the more elegiac tone of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” sets it apart from the rather sarcastic poem “They.” Siegfried Sassoon's sardonic narrative is also much simpler and more straightforward than Owen's often ambiguous figurative language and ironic deeper meaning. Sassoon's quasi-sonnet (what is sometimes called the “English sestet”) comprises two six-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ababcc, each line consisting of ten iambic pentameters. The first stanza (sestet) describes how a nameless “Bishop” very pompously lauds—most likely from the pulpit of his church—the noble self-sacrifice of British soldiers in their “just war” against the “anti-Christ” “Hun”: “When the boys come back / They will not be the same; for they'll have fought / In a just cause: they lead the last attack / On Anti-Christ ...” (2-4). According to the Bishop's well-rehearsed recital of dogmatic jingoistic cliches, their ennobling sacrifice was necessary for the survival of Christian civilization and indeed for the continuation of Britain's Anglo-Saxon “race”: “their comrades' blood has bought / New right to breed an honourable race” (4-5). According to the Bishop's hypocritical sermon of praise, the fallen soldiers have heroically confronted what the poet has personified as the war's most frightening symbol (“Death”): “They have challenged Death and dared him face to face" (6).

Unlike the incognito narration by an anonymous persona (Owen himself?) in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Sassoon's poem “They” is told entirely from the perspective of what are presumably several church-attending local youths (“us” or simply “the boys”), some of whom may even be soldiers on leave from the front. The poem's turning point (Volta) is right between its first and second stanzas (sestets). Given the youths' distressed and sarcastic rejoinder to the Bishop's meaningless repetition of the usual official deceptions and lies, the more pained and agonizing tone and imagery in lines 7-12 contrast sharply with the churchman's artificially solemn and pseudo-celebratory pitch in lines 1-6. The group of aggrieved youths (reminiscent of the tragic Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy) tells the Bishop about the horrible wartime tragedies that have befallen four of their crippled or dying friends and neighbors: "For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind; / Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and likely to die; / And Bert's gone syphilitic...” (8-10). The tone of their collective voice is one of bitter irony, cynical sarcasm, and complete disillusionment with the war. Their grim litany of wartime's horrors is a direct echo of each point in the Bishop's falsely exalted and insincere tribute to the brave soldiers. Those who were supposed to “lead the last attack on Anti-Christ” are now without legs, or “stone blind,” or dying from their wounds. Those who have supposedly “bought New right to breed an honourable race" are ravaged and emasculated by war-linked STD. Unmoved and unrepentant, the Bishop gives this Greek tragic chorus of embittered and despairing youths a perfunctory stock response: “The ways of God are strange!” (As usual, “God” is blamed for all the mindless and tragic folly of Man!) The Bishop's indifferent retort is hardly the conflict-resolving final synthesis, which the English sonnet-form calls for when the flag-waving Bishop's propagandistic thesis in the first stanza is contradicted by the youths' contrasting and subverting anti-thesis in the second stanza.

The two poems are very much alike in their heartsick and angry lament for the wounded, the dead, and the dying in a brutal, destructive, and inglorious imperialistic war. Both share a common antiwar theme, but approach it from distinctive stylistic angles and address different actual subjects. The more elegiac “Anthem for Doomed Youth” decries the failure of the Empire, preoccupied with global war-fighting, to mourn the ordinary war dead or even offer consolation to the lower-ranking soldiers dying needlessly in the front lines (where well over 500 British infantrymen were executed on the spot just for refusing to go “over the top” to a certain death in futile and suicidal human-wave attacks). This lyric poem's memorable imagery and striking figures of speech also confirm Owen's reputation as the finest British soldier-poet of the Great War. Satirical and even cynical in both its tone and imagery, “They” is more direct in accusing those responsible for this monstrous mass slaughter, as it launches a blistering attack on the official Anglican Church, whose pro-war clergy preached the Empire's self-righteous and rather un-Christian gospel of violence throughout this heinous conflict, rather than Christ's passionate message of love and peace. Sassoon's aesthetically exquisite poem also shows at his best another of Britain's greatest WWI soldier-poets.

 

Works Cited

Owen, Wilfred. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Poetry: An Introduction, 7th edition. Michael Meyer.  Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013. 202-203. Print.

Rivers, Bryan. “'Those Who Die As Cattle': The Evolution of The Opening Simile In Wilfred Owen's  'Anthem for Doomed Youth'.” Notes & Queries, Vol. 61, Issue 1 (March 2014): 142-145. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Rivers, Bryan. “'A Drawing-Down of Blinds': Wilfred Owen's Punning Conclusion to 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'.” Notes & Queries, Vol. 56, Issue 3 (September 2009): 409-411. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “They.” Poetry: An Introduction, 7th edition. Michael Meyer. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013. 202-203. Print.