English war poetry from the trenches. After Sassoon I read a poem from the pen of remarkable Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), one great poor soul from the culled generation of World War I:
Anthem for doomed youth
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 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.
Did the soldiers of the first world war die as cattle? The metaphor is sometimes invoked for the horrors of the shoah, the lurid invention of manslaughter on an industrial scale, and by animal right activists PETA who like the holocaust to factory farming. To die as cattle: anonymously, murdered by a machinery that lies beyond your imagination. The sound of the angry guns and rifles are all they have for their orisons (hasty prayers). But these don’t compare to real prayers or real bells, or real mourning.
After likening the sound of rattling gunfire with church bells and farewells, Owen goes further and makes the wailing shells a choir (shell shock…) with bugle horns (here is a bugle from world war I). He asks about the candles, but there is no time. He stretches his poetic imagination to give the boys at least the dignity of a funeral service. There are no candles, so they make do with the holy glimmer of goodbyes in their eyes. There are no shrouds, so they use the fading memory of their girls als a pall. And for flowers there’s the tender patience of their pals.
This is one of the most heart wrenching war poems I know. What do you think?