Stumbling on “Anthem for Doomed Youth“


How beautiful it is when you stumble upon a beautiful thing by serendipity?

For me, it was a piece of poetry by Wilfred Owen, called Anthem for Doomed Youth.

I found it when I picked up this book, Regeneration. Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for the third instalment in this trilogy, “The Ghost Road,” the first two being “Regeneration” and “The Eye in the Door.”

For me, the writing style of “Regeneration” was a bit of a drag and often I found myself getting irritated in the beginning of the book. But slowly, the book settled on me, and it caught me by my throat. This historical fiction takes real human beings and weaves a saga of war horror. I was introduced to the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Later, the poem by Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth made a deep impression on me.

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.

Source: The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1986)

The book begins with a seditious letter by Siegfried Sassoon to the government declaring why he feels the war is futile and being unnecessarily prolonged. His friend in an attempt to save him from a court martial, pulls a few strings and Sassoon finds himself in a mental asylum, Craiglockhart. There he meets Dr W. H. R. Rivers, the sensitive and humane neurologist and psychotherapist, who treats and cures the patients affected by war with sincere and humane care. Sassoon also had a deep influence on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, when the latter befriended Sassoon, who was already an established poet notorious for his war beliefs.

There are other characters like the extremely odious Dr Lewis Yealland ,who was the antithesis of Dr Rivers when it came to treatment of war patients. You see, Dr Yealland believed that war soldiers were not seriously ill, they were just feigning sickness to avoid going to the war. He would treat them with electric shock therapy and intimidation, but surprisingly he had a 100% success rate at sending soldiers back to the war.

Prior is a young war patient who suffered shell shock and seems to be the main character in the trilogy, though I found his character not yet fully formed in this book.

What makes a book great? Not the ideas that are explicitly written in it, but the ones that the reader ruminates on much later after they are done with it. While treating his patients like Sassoon, Owen, and Prior, often Dr. Rivers sympathises them to a point that he finds himself being drawn to the ideas of Sassoon, relating to the war and its harmful effects on soldiers. Sassoon, in contrast, strongly believes in the futility of a war he feels is being unnecessarily prolonged by his country, yet he goes to France to lead the war again just because he believes it is his duty to fight along his men as long as needed. This clash of beliefs and duties is often found in human beings, and its portrayal in this book is very poignant.

The idea that a man may have a conviction, but often he goes against his beliefs to fulfil his duties.

I am planning to read the remaining books in the trilogy soon enough but not too soon. For now, I have had enough of trenches, bombs and shell shock. Imagine, if reading about war experiences is so harrowing to the human mind, how unimaginably inhuman and gross it must be to live through the terror of war. Maybe Pat Barker intentionally wanted to bring the reader to that mood.


If you liked this review, you can read a free sample of the book here.

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