Saturday, February 18, 2006

Y13: Some questions on Wilfred Owen's poem Anthem For Doomed Youth and one students's answers to them. This should help if you want to use Owen's poetry in your essay.

1) “Owen wrote Anthem in Sonnet form and so joined it with the grand tradition of Sonnet Poetry (Shakespeare etc). Why did Owen use this form?”

Sonnet poems are expected to be constructed of two parts: the octave, an eight-line description of situation, and the sestet, a six-line solution or conclusion. This is seen in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, where Shakespeare describes a romantic dilemma in the octave, and offers a peaceful conclusion in the sestet.

Here Owen uses the structure of the sonnet to divide his poem in two, allowing a stronger grasp of his meaning. Unlike the poetry of Shakespeare and the likes, Owen’s writing uses the present emotion to argue a political point of view. I believe that Owen wished to harness the emotional impact of the sonnet in order to put a stronger argument forwards than a more linear structure would have allowed.

Also, there is a powerful irony in Owen’s use of the sonnet in a war poem, as the sonnet is often seen as the format of a love poem. This idea would have appealed to Owen in his attempt to shock and move his audience.

2) “In the 3rd line, Owen uses a variety of poetic techniques to create sound image. Analyse what these are and why they work.”

“Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” is a line full of repetition. It begins with “stuttering”: the word contains three hard “T” sounds, which I believe are used to give the reader a mental image of the guns, and the sound that they would create.

Straight after this follows a good example of alliteration: “rifles’ rapid rattle” repeats the “R” sound, once again enforcing the image that this line creates.

3) “The poem is often divided into an octave and a sestet. Thinking about tone and language, in what ways can this be said to be true?”

I feel that the division between the octave and sestet is made clear upon close analysis of the text. If we were to assume that the poem was divided into sonnet form, we could take the first eight lines and examine them:

In the octave, Owen uses mostly descriptions of death in war: “passing bells” refer to the bell rang for a person as they pass away. He also mentions “orisons”, in the context of funeral prayers. “choirs of wailing shells” and “bugles calling them” are also great examples of the octave’s concentration on the taking of human life.

There is also a clear religious theme running through the octave: He mentions “bells“, “prayers” and “choirs” as methods of linking religion and faith to the conflict. The reason for this is made clearer in the sestet.

In the sestet Owen drops the war theme, and also avoids anger and violence as themes. This begins with the line “What candles may be held to speed them all?”. From this line onwards, the poem takes on a more solemn tone. He mentions children, drawing powerful images of the young who are left behind on the warpath. He continues the religious theme, tying the two parts together effectively.

The sestet begins with a question, as the octave did. Whereas the octave’s question related to bells, which are the sign of someone having died, the sestet’s question focuses on candles, which are a way of demonstrating remembrance of someone who has passed away. In the octave, Owen angrily demands respect for the “doomed youth“; in the sestet, Owen mourns them.

This clearly distinguishes both parts of the poem, allowing Owen to serve his purpose: he creates anger at war in the octave, and desire for peace in the sestet.

4) “Why does Owen juxtapose war imagery with church images?”

It is my opinion that the answer to this question lies in the chronological context. Wilfred Owen wrote Anthem For Doomed Youth during World War 1. At this time, Christianity was much more widely accepted in England, and indeed across the globe. There would really be no quicker a way to appeal to the general public than to give his poem a strong Christian theme.

I believe the juxtaposition of war and church is to demonstrate the “un-holiness” of the conflict. This view is corroborated by lines like “No mockeries now for them; no prayers or bells”. The term “mockeries” implies that any attempt at Christian funeral ceremonies on a battlefield would make a mockery of the dead.

The un-holiness of scene Owen paints may have been intended to remind us of Hell, another place where religious symbolism would be wasted. I believe this cuts to the very core of the poem: Owen wishes to deliver a clear and powerful message: “War is Hell”.

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