Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- People are dying and our speaker asks us, what sound is there to mark their deaths?
- Those "passing-bells"? They're church bells, which are rung to mark someone's death (when they have passed away).
- Already this phrase has introduced religious imagery to the poem, but it's contrasted with the horrific experience on the front lines of war, where men die like cattle. And where we can't imagine any church bells are ringing.
- Did you notice that our speaker says "these" instead of "those"? Why do you think that might be?
- "Those" gives a sense of distance to the poem. You might use that word to talk about people who are far away, or whom you feel separate from. If you use "these," it's as though you're talking about someone who's right there in the room with you.
- So with this very slight matter of word choice, our speaker has deliberately brought the soldiers that much closer to us. It's as if we're on the battlefield, seeing those soldiers falling right and left.
- And what are these soldiers compared to? Cattle. It's not exactly the nicest simile we've ever heard. But it does pack a big punch.
- The phrase "die as cattle" suggests slaughter. He's saying that something about these deaths is especially terrible—it's inhuman, it's treating soldiers like animals.
- Cattle come in herds, right? It seems a lot of these men are dying all at once.
- All in all we've got a pretty bleak start to what will probably be a pretty bleak poem.
- One last thing, Shmoopers. Read this line aloud to yourself. Do you notice anything about the way it sounds? A rhythm? A meter? "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle."
- There's a little da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM action, with an extra "da" at the end of the line.
- When we see this rhythm in poetry (five da-DUMs in a row), we call it iambic pentameter. In this case, it's got an extra syllable at the end, just for fun. If you're curious about meter in this poem, be sure to check out our "Form and Meter" section, and keep a weather eye out for more da-DUMs as you continue reading. There will be a lot.
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
- It's nice of our speaker to answer his own question for us.
- The only thing that marks their deaths is the angry sound of more guns. Gunfire is just about the opposite of pleasant church bells.
- That word "monstrous" is a pretty big and heavy word, we'd say, especially to load on top of "anger."
- We mean, anger is already a pretty violent and scary thing. So "monstrous anger" means that something about these guns is terrible enough to put regular anger to shame.
- And now we know for sure, if we hadn't already guessed, that this poem is talking about war.
- After all, where else would men die like cattle to the sound of monstrously angry guns?
- Finally, we've got ten syllables again, so we're thinking this is a continuation of the first line's iambic pentameter. Albeit with a variation or two.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
- Our speaker says that rifle fire is the only kind of prayer for the dying soldiers. ("Orison" is kind of a fancy word [from Latin] for prayer.)
- We've got some anaphora action here, what with that repetition of "Only." It's a nifty trick that Owen uses to build momentum and pacing.
- That word "hasty" makes us aware of the suddenness of death on the war front, and also underscores the haphazard and senseless nature of the killing that's going on there.
- These are not thoughtful deaths—they're quick, loud, and messy.
- The word "stuttering" helps bridge the gap between the rifles and the people back home who are saying prayers for these boys. By personifying the rifles, it gives us a weird opposite of what happened when the soldiers were first compared to cattle.
- The soldiers become like animals, while the guns become like people. That does not sound like a good combo.
- In any case, there are some strange connections being made—between guns and prayer, between people and animals.
- Bonus: did you notice the rhyming action? Yep, rattle rhymes with cattle and orisons rhymes (sort of) with guns. Neat, huh?
- Keep your eye out for more rhymes as you read, and see if you can spot a scheme or pattern while you're at it. And be sure to check out the "Form and Meter" section for more.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
- There are no prayers and no bells on the front to mock the dying men.
- Wait. What?
- Here our speaker's not pulling any punches. He sets us up with the word "mockeries" then, when we find out what those mockeries would be—prayers and bells. Those don't sound like mockeries to Shmoop. So what's going on here?
- This line strips the holy, solemn mask off those rituals and casts them as an outright sham. Those prayers? Those bells? They're a joke.
- Now why might this be?
- We're thinking the speaker feels this way because he thinks that those rituals totally miss the point. They ignore what's really happening.
- They glorify the deaths by pretending that the fighting is purposeful and noble, when really it's akin to slaughtering cattle.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
- In fact, there's basically no mourning going on whatsoever on the battlefield, except for the wailing of shells, which our speaker compares to the sound of choirs.
- Once again, we've got a traditionally religious image (choirs) being used as a metaphor for the rather unlovely reality of war (in this case, the sound of shelling). Now that's a terrifying contrast.
- This is a freaky sort of choir. It's "shrill" and "demented." Something is twisted here. This is not a choir you want singing at your funeral, or even your average Sunday mass.
- The use of these uncharacteristic adjectives could be another way for our speaker to point out the huge difference between what life and death are really like on the front, and the holy and noble way that those back home present it.
- Plus, this word choice also has a way of pointing out that all the holy and patriotic civilians are absent at the front. There's no voice of mourning there for the young men, no pomp and circumstance—just the sound of shells.
- Our speaker is either lamenting this fact—wondering where all these mournful patriots are in actual battle, or he's saying that if there isn't any fancy memorial going on on the battlefield, then we shouldn't pretend by having them at home. It just seems phony (at least, so says the speaker).
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
- Our speaker now draws our attention to another sound of mourning for the soldier—the sound of bugles playing in sad towns.
- A "shire" is an English term for a county. (Just think of Frodo and all the hobbits of the Shire.)
- And of course the bugle is an instrument with military associations. In particular, it's the instrument used to play "Taps" at soldiers' funerals.
- This presumably is meant to call to mind all the towns left with half or more of their young men dead.
- There sure is a lot of sad music in this short poem, although the music of these bugles is a bit more literal than those scary sounding choirs. There's no metaphor here. That bugle music is all too real.