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Instead, the soldiers about to serve should be 'treated' to the mimicking of gunfire, so they will be prepared for the trenches. In foxholes, after all, the soldier's 'hasty orisons' must keep time to the guns and the rifles. Owen uses personification to characterize the guns which are angry (as his tone). The guns do their work and the alliteration of the 'rifles' and 'rapid rattle' and the consonance of the 'ts' in 'stuttering' and 'rattle' give a sense of what a battlefield really sounds like -- not a church service with slow bells, but with roaring guns and spattering bullets.
Owen makes frequent use of 'nihilistic' language in "Anthem," to convey sadness and the future sense of deadness the soldiers may experience, or at very least feel. "No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; nor any voice of mourning save the choirs," he writes. Prayers and bells and holy-sounding praise or prayers is a mockery, given what these men are being sent to do and what they will face. The poem is characterized by 'absence' rather than presence, the only real sound is "The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; / and bugles calling for them from sad shires." The words 'demented choirs' refers to the madness that many soldiers, including Owen, suffered as a result of their service and also recalls the fact that the poem is set in a church. But instead of human beings, the shells of guns make 'shrill' and 'wailing' sounds. Owen's compassion for all soldiers of all classes is evident in this stanza -- those who go mad, and also those called from rural places in the shires by the bugles of war.
The poem is broken into an octave and a sestet, and while the octave is more auditory in its images, the sestet contains the more striking images of the poem, although Owen's compassion always evident. "What candles may be held to speed them all?" he muses about the candles lit in church, thinking the candles are more likely to speed the boys to the grave than home. "Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes." The sacredness of the ceremony is not in votive candles, but the holy hopes and glimmers of goodbyes of the youths, as they pray within to return to their loved ones, perhaps a mother or a wife. But rather than warmth and the hope of a return: "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." The homey image of girls, flowers, and houseblinds recall the drawing of blinds down upon the lives of men at the front, and the flowers will adorn the men's graves.
The soldiers need to be warned of the suffering that awaits them, Owen implies, but they are not, instead they are praised in the language of the church, even while they are going off to their deaths. There should not be a celebration, instead the men should listen to gunfire, and instead of the glowing lights of the church and the beauty of the young women in the church, and the men should look upon pale-death images, as the girls should be pale as death in sorrow, as the men will be pale as death, under flowers in the ground after they serve. Owen effectively creates two parallel universes, two parallel church services. In one service, the "Anthem" of praise is sung, the church bells toll, their glorious sacrifice is praised, and beautiful young girls from the village shire look on, happy and beautiful, while church candles glow. In the second, there is the sound of gunfire, the paleness of death, and quick prayers that keep time with the ammunition. It is clear what Owen, based upon his own cruel experience, thinks what the church service should really resemble -- it should be a warning of what is to come, and a mourning for those who are doomed -- doomed to lose their lives, minds, and perhaps their souls on the front lines of war.
Owen, Wilfred. "Anthem for a Doomed Youth." 1917.
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