Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
Analysis: Form and Meter
Sonnet, Iambic Pentameter
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a sonnet written mostly in iambic pentameter. Right? Right. For you poets and poetesses out there, that might sound like a no brainer. But for those of you who are new to poetry, Shmoop will give you a quick and dirty explanation.
The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem with a rhyme scheme (of which there are several versions). We can thank the Italians for this one; a dude named Petrarch perfected the form, and his influence brought it over into realm of English literature. In fact, Thomas Wyatt was the first guy to translate Petrarch's Italian sonnets into English, which happened in the early 16th century.
Wyatt and his bro buddy, the Earl of Surrey, then gave these new English sonnets their rhyming meter, and divided them up a little differently, much to everyone's delight. Pretty soon, all kinds of poets were trying their hands at them. Shakespeare wrote a few (and by "a few" we mean 154), and pretty much every poet since has at least dabbled in the form.
The sonnet has been around for a while, so it's had time to reinvent itself, several times over. There are a bunch of different kinds of sonnets now, with exciting names like Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian. (Just think: if you become a literary giant and invent your own rhyme scheme, you could have a kind of sonnet named after you. Yep, you!)
Owen Owes Us a Sonnet
Owen went old school on "Anthem for Doomed Youth." He chose the Petrarchan sonnet form from way way back, but then he added a little dose of Big Willy and went for the more Shakespearean rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD EFFEGG. How'd we figure that out?
Check out the ends of the lines in the octet (that's the first, eight-line stanza of the poem). Cattle from line 1 rhymes with rattle from line 3 (and guns rhymes with orisons). Bells and shells rhyme, while choirs and shires have their own thing going on.
Then take a gander at the sestet, or the final, six-line stanza of the poem. All rhymes with pall, eyes with byes, and minds with blinds. Simple enough, right?
In typical sonnets, the break between the first eight lines—the octet—and the last six lines—the sestet—marks some sort of shift in the poem. A change of course, a transition between ideas, a problem and then its solution. In the case of "Anthem for Doomed Youth," the shift is between the battlefield, and the quieter, less action-packed world of civilians at home.
I Am Pentameter
A sonnet is hardly a sonnet without a bit of iambic pentameter. What's that, you say? Allow Shmoop to explain:
An iamb is a rhythmic foot (yep, foot) made up of a stressed and unstressed syllable (da-DUM) and pentameter means there are five of those feet in a row. That makes for about ten syllables per line and a rhythm like "and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds" (14). Of course, in this poem as in many, it's more of a prevailing pattern than a strict rhythm that must always be used.
But here's the thing. For all its iambic-ness and all its pentameter posturing, this poem sure does deviate from its own rules. Just look at the first line:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? (1)
Uh, Owen? We count eleven syllables.
And what about line 2?:
Only the monstrous anger ofthe guns
That's not exactly perfect iambic pentameter. In fact, Owen substitutes what's called a trochee (think of it as the opposite of an iamb: DA-dum), for the usual iamb.
Owen includes all kinds of variations like these—extra syllables, non-iambic feet, and the like throughout the poem. He's constantly keeping us on our toes, unsettling us as readers so that we can never get too comfy with the rituals of grief. We're meant to be off kilter, upset, and troubled. If we grow too at ease, we're missing the point.
Q and A
Q: What's the one last formal thing Shmoop wants to mention?
A: That this poem is set up in a question-and-answer format.
Q: Why might that be?
A: Well it certainly draws us in as readers.
Q: Why else?
We think it has something to do with the fact that these questions don't really have answers. There are no "passing-bells for those who die as cattle" (1). And there are no "candles may be held to speed them all" (9).