Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
Stanza 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
- Now our speaker wants to know what candles all these mourners can hold in honor of these fallen soldiers.
- We might think of this as a more general question: what rituals can people possible perform to help these soldiers pass on peacefully (to speed them)? Rituals like, say, lighting candles in churches.
- So then we might think of these candles as a metaphor for the larger ceremonies we hold when attempting to honor those killed in action.
- Given what the poem has shown us so far, we're pretty sure that there isn't some special scented candle that we can light back home that will help the soldier in any real way.
- We can also expect, since he did it in the first stanza, that our speaker might be about to answer his own question.
- So let's keep reading, shall we?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
- Sure enough, the answer to the question "What candles?" is exactly that—what candles! There are no candles here.
- Our speaker brushes off the idea of lighting candles. What's the point of that? He instead turns our attention to tears, which, if you think about it, are also a sort of ritual that marks the soldier's death, although less fancy (and probably more sincere).
- This reference to what's "in their eyes" could refer both to the tears of the soldiers' sons, and to the tears of the soldiers themselves. We're not quite sure yet to whom that pronoun refers, so we'll just have to roll with it.
- We don't know about you, but those words "shine" and "glimmer" remind Shmoop of the candles from line 9, even as we know we're now talking about tears. Those two words make a sort of link, so that we know that the tears are standing in for the candles.
- Note that these lines employ words that we associate with holy things, rather than human things. For example, instead of tears we have "holy glimmers," and instead of deaths we have "goodbyes."
- "Holy glimmers and goodbyes" certainly sound more lofty and noble than tears and death, but when we think about it, we're still talking about human pain and suffering.
- Owen is emphasizing the emotional aspect of grief—the private mourning that goes on. Holding a public vigil is nowhere near as poignant as actual tears. They're what counts.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
- The pale, drained faces of girls will stand in for the cover on the dead soldiers' coffins. Lovely.
- A pall is the cloth typically draped over a coffin, so in this case, the girls' pale faces will be metaphorically draped over the soldiers' coffins, sending them off in style.
- The drained (sad, shocked) faces of girls probably refers to the significant others and/or daughters of the soldiers—the women who are left behind by war.
- This line, like the lines before it, brings our attention to the suffering caused by the death of the soldiers, not only to the soldiers themselves but also to their towns and families. And it's mixing that suffering in with the language of funeral rituals.
- So what matters here is not the pall, but the pallor; the girls' grief is what really counts.
- In this way, our speaker is not letting the funeral ritual get away with seeming somber and noble; he's forcing it to take on the weight of the real suffering that surrounds it.
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
- "The tenderness of patient minds" will be like the flowers put on the soldiers' graves.
- This, for us at least, is one of the more mysterious lines in the poem.
- It could be that our speaker is holding up tender, patient minds in contrast to those who are all eager and excited about war.
- In that way, this line could be telling us that the only positive tribute to the dead soldiers comes from the tender thoughts and concerns of those who have more patient, sensitive minds. Those who are really concerned about their safety and the danger they're in, and mourn their losses.
- On the other hand, it could be that this line's getting at something more critical of those patient minds: perhaps they shouldn't be so patient with all the jingoism and the eagerness to send boys off to die.
- Maybe these minds should be a little less patient, and a little more eager to bring the boys home.
- How do you read this line, Shmoopers?
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
- Our speaker ends with an image of blinds being drawn shortly before dark.
- That word "slow" reflects the way the poem has been slowing down throughout this second stanza, with this last line being the slowest and quietest of them all.
- All that pacing is enhanced by the fact that this line, unlike many of the ones that have come before, is written in perfect iambic pentameter. That meter gives the line a somber cadence; it really lands.
- But a big part of its impact comes from the image itself.
- The drawing of blinds certainly works on one hand as an image of death. The families that have lost young men are the ones closing the blinds, as a sort of matching image to the closing and ending of a life.
- It also works as an image of civilians at home, with the drawing down of blinds acting as a symbol for the way they're keeping out the realities of the war. They don't want to be troubled by it. These folks will wave their flags by day, and close their blinds at night, so they don't have to see the darkness, the terrible realities of the war.
- The grammar of this sentence also has a brilliant way of demonstrating the way that people are unwilling to take responsibility for what's going on.
- How, you ask? Well, check out the sentence. Who is doing the action, who's drawing down the blinds? It kind of seems like… nobody! It's a passive sentence, which makes it seem like the blinds are drawing themselves down. Nobody's in charge here. No one's responsible.
- This is like when you might say, "The cookies were eaten," or "there was an eating of the cookies" when you don't want to admit, "I ate the cookies."
- Of course this passive reading lends itself to a more negative reading of Line 13. Tender, patient minds might be more likely to draw down blinds and block out the real horrors the fighting men are facing.
- Or, then again, to cut these folks some slack, we might read this line as a simple, tender, private moment of grief. What else is there to do when you've lost a man in combat but to shun the rituals and shut out the world and mourn in your own personal way?