Friday 4 November 2022

Anthem for Doomed Youth - Celia Rees

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 

I'm sure many people reading this blog will instantly recognise Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. It was written in 1917, a year before his death on 4th November, 1918. He was twenty five years old. When he died, Owen was almost unknown - only five of his poems were published in his lifetime - but today, we are nearly as familiar with the details of his life as we are with his poetry. He was born and spent his early years in Oswestry, a Shropshire lad. The death of his grandfather marked a change in fortune. His family moved to Birkenhead for his father to take up a post as Station Master. Owen avidly read boarding school books and The Boys' Own Paper and grew up with a feeling of loss of status, having not attended boarding school, or gone up to Oxford. When he joined up, he was made an officer, thus gaining the status he so wanted. Unfortunately, the generation who were educated in the schools he had envied, were doomed. Junior officers were easily identified by German snipers, marked out by their distinctively different uniforms and their positioning on the battlefield, first over the top, leading from the front, pistol in hand. They were killed in their thousands  Rolls of Honour in every boarding school chapel attests to the numbers lost.   

Wilfred Owen 1893 - 1918

I first discovered Wilfred Owen when I was in the Sixth Form, transfixed by a classroom reading of  'Dulce et decorum est', the sensory overload of horror the poem lays on the reader line after line, conjuring those public school boys, those 'children ardent for some desperate glory', their passing soon to be recorded on chapel walls, celebrated by 'The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori'.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen


 It was the Sixties, the Vietnam War was raging, Oh, What A Lovely War! was transferring from the theatre to the big screen, anti-war sentiment was everywhere.  Owen's poems spoke to me, as they do to every generation because no generation since the 1914 - 18 has been untouched by conflict, the reality brought right into our living rooms on the TV News. Over a hundred years after his death, Owen's poetry still resonates as we see the devastation in Ukraine, villages and cities, fields and forests turned into no-man's-land, dead bodies by the sides of roads, soldiers huddled in their trenches, watching the water rise, waiting for the winter that's coming.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us..
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . 

..Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, 

SShrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp. 

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,

Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, 

Exposure - Wilfred Owen

    Wilfred Owen died 104 years ago today, a week before Armistice was declared and the war was over. There is something especially poignant being killed so close to the ending of hostilities.  My Uncle Bob was killed on 14th June, 1918, close enough for the family legend to grow that he was killed in the last days. My uncle’s experience is largely unknown and unknowable. He sent letters to his family, pencil written because he was ‘other ranks’. He also sent water colour sketches of the places, churches and castles he saw behind the lines. He pressed wildflowers he found growing in no-man’s-land, on the borders of the roads he tramped, in the trenches he manned. Poppies, yes, but also Larkspur, Scabious, Ragged Robin. He saw beauty there, as Owen did. We know nothing of his other experiences: the suffering he saw, the fear, the fighting and dying. In that Wilfred Owen speaks for him. He speaks for all of them. 

My Uncle Bob with his family
His temporary grave in Flanders

His name, Pte R. W. Goodway, on the War Memorial in Leamington Spa



Susan Price said...

Wonderful, Celia. Thank you. I didn't know 'Exposure' and what a poem! I'm surprised it isn't as well known as 'Dulce est Decorum...'
On my Grandmother's wall hung a framed, sepia photograph of a handsome young man in uniform. Its frame was completely covered by poppies, some bright and new, some faded. He was, I was told, her youngest and favourite brother, William, killed in World War I.
We're probably the last generation to have that almost personal contact with 'those who died like cattle.' In that war, at least.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Celia for a post that so fits this time of year, and for reminding us of "other ranks", who rarely spoke about their experiences yet saw the same flowers and fields and casualties.

I was haunted by Owen's powerful words when the teachers introduced his lines to us at my school, and as you describe, that younger generation were more than ready to receive their message.

I often remember the influential trio of unmarried teachers who taught English, History and Latin in my grammar school convent, They entered the classrooms with their degree gowns floating behind the but they and their families had experienced the effects of those two wars. How on earth did they feel while teaching these poems to the girls before them?