Short, But Sweet: Anthem for Doomed Youth

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
BY WILFRED OWEN
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’ve written before about my affinity for Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and seeing that today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought it appropriate to contemplate another. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” isn’t a poem that I’ve used in class, at least not yet, but I think that in the great struggle we seem to have with the ability to make texts “relevant” for our students, this is another that wins out. Well, depending on where you teach.

The two high schools at which I have taught both have a pretty large military presence. One is right on the I-95 corridor in Northern Virginia, not far from Quantico, so we had quite a number of military families and several students who readily joined a branch of service upon graduation (one girl, in fact, went to Annapolis). The school where I currently teach is not near a base, but there are an increasing number of students whose parents work at NGIC, a military intelligence agency that has a large facility a few miles down the road; moreover, military recruiting has quite a presence in our cafeteria and not a year goes by when several students stand up at graduation to be recognized for their impending service.

Compare that to the high school I attended, where most of us went to a two-year or four-year college (mostly four-year), several of us applied to at least one Ivy League school (and, if you’re like me, was soundly rejected from said Ivy), and only a scattered few signed up to serve. This has a lot to do with demographics–Sayville is a middle- to upper middle-class suburb while the district where I teach is a rural area with a contrast of middle-class families and extreme poverty. The idea that you can go away and serve, obtain job training as well as money for college is appealing to a student who might not be able to afford such an expense.

That particular analysis aside (which could be a post in itself), this poem makes for good subject matter because the possibility of going off to fight in a war is very real. Now, it may seem that I am pulling off some good ‘ol hippie liberal peace-and-love indoctrination here, and I readily admit that I am a very left-leaning person; however, I like Owen’s poetry and I like having my students read Owen’s poetry because it is very real and often graphic, and is actually solid primary source material. Owen was a solider who was killed in 1918 just before the end of the war. And since our last one died a couple of years ago, I can’t have a World War I vet come in and speak to the class (I know, I know, an innovative educator would raise the dead …), this is a great resource for studying this particular moment in time. Plus, like I said, it’s graphic. I had a class full of guys a couple of years ago who ate Owen’s poetry up because of its violent, graphic nature.

The same with All Quiet on the Western Front.  We had a retired teacher who was also a Vietnam vet come in and share some of his poetry as well. Their reception to the literature and the speaker was genuinely surprising–this was easily the toughest class I’ve ever dealt with–and it was refreshing to have an honest discussion about what really happens when you’re sent off to fight in a war versus what you see on when you’re playing Call of Duty instead of the parade of bodily functions and animal noises they usually provided. It gave them an opportunity to really think about what’s out there, what’s possible, and although that might be more negative than positive, looking at the honest reality of history provides them with a rare chance for perspective.

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