If you've got soldiers dying out in the trenches, chances are you've got some mourners back home. And the woeful widows and forlorn family members are having quite a different experience than those fighting guys out there in the heat of battle. So while the soldiers die senselessly—like cattle—the men and women back home are forced to try to make sense of it all with grieving rituals, songs, funerals and the like. But can those rituals ever equal the true experience of war? Probably not, says Owen.
Line 1: Ritual numero uno comes to us in the form of a rhetorical question. These "passing-bells" are a traditional (and religious) way to mark someone's death. But when thousands die at once on the battlefield, no bell rings for the individuals. And are there any sort of bells ringing out the deaths of these soldiers? Owen answers us with a resounding no, which is implied by the lines that follow.
Line 2-4: So instead of the ritual of "passing-bells," we're stuck with endless machine gun fire. That sound is a stand-in for the more traditional ritual of prayer.
Line 5: Bells? Prayers? No, says Owen, they're nowhere to be found on the battlefield. And that means that when we perform these rituals at home, we're really just making a mockery of the real stuff that's going down on the front.
Line 6: Funerals often have a song or two to send off the dead, right? But there are no funerals on the battlefield, and that means that artillery shells will have to metaphorically stand in for the choirs of a church.
Line 9: Here we are with another mourning ritual (the lighting of candles) and another rhetorical question.
Line 10: In this line, the ritual of candle lighting is replaced by the much more sincere act of crying.
Line 12: And the ritual of putting a pall on a coffin is replaced here by the more sincere image of a grieving face.
Line 13: The metaphor here connects the ritual of putting flowers on a grave with the patience and tenderness of those waiting at home. It might be suggesting that the compassion of others is as useful to the dying soldier as flowers on his grave (so, not very useful). Or it might be contrasting the two, with the compassion being a much more fitting and suitable way of mourning than the act of bringing flowers to a gravestone.
Line 14: This last line, as you can probably tell, is an image. But it's also a symbol that works in a number of ways. First, the setting of dusk reminds us (as if we need reminding at this point) of death. The drawing down of blinds might also be read as signifying the refusal to see all that icky darkness and death. This, we think, is not a good thing for our speaker. He wants us to see the darkness and suffering, and to acknowledge the terrible cruelties of war. It's the willing ignorance of such things, perhaps, that makes war such an easy sell. But it could also depict the much more sincere, ritual-less private grief that the mourners experience, when all the pomp and circumstance of a ceremonial funeral is over, and they're left alone.