An anthem that is not an anthem

An anthem that is not an anthem

Friday, 12 September 2014

Kate McLoughlin takes a deeper look at one of the most prolific war poems of the First World War, "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen.

Kate McLoughlin is an associate professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Tutorial Fellow of Harris Manchester College.  She is the author of Authoring War: The Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq (2011) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to War Writing (2009). 


At the heart of Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is a 14-line poem: a sonnet by Wilfred Owen which came to have the title "Anthem for Doomed Youth". Second Lieutenant Owen had served at the Front in the First World War for around eighteen months before he was posted, suffering from shellshock, to Craiglockhart Hydropathic Hospital outside Edinburgh.  (Craiglockhart still exists, now part of the NHS and still treating traumatised veterans.) There he met Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon. Appalled by the conduct and conditions of the war, Sassoon had sent a letter entitled ‘Finished With the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’ to his Commanding Officer. The letter was forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament. Rather than court-martial him, the Under-Secretary of State for War had Sassoon declared unfit for duty and sent to Craiglockhart for treatment for shellshock.

 

 

In both the novel and Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation, the discussion of the draft poem by Owen and Sassoon is a key encounter. By the time the two men met, Sassoon was a well-established poet: his collections The Daffodil Murderer and The Old Huntsman had been published in 1913 and 1917. Owen, by contrast, was a still-aspiring poet who had spent time in France before the war where he had come under the influence of the French Symbolists. At Craiglockhart, he edited the hospital magazine, The Hydra. Owen brings his poem to Sassoon, whom he very much admires – even worships, even loves – for feedback.

The two men begin by discussing the first two lines: ‘What minute-bells for these who die so fast? / Only the monstrous anger of our guns …’.  Sassoon likes the connection between ‘minute’ and ‘fast’, as it reveals how quickly the soldiers are dying. In a further exchange, which takes place in the novel though not in the stage adaptation, Owen wonders whether the adjective should be ‘monstrous’ or ‘solemn’.  Sassoon thinks that ‘solemn’ would give too much dignity to the German dead but Owen explains that he is referring to all the dead. ‘Then the guns are all the guns,’ Sassoon insists.  Owen decides that ‘monstrous’ is better than ‘solemn’ and changes ‘so fast’ to ‘in herds’.

In this scene, we are seeing one of the earliest discussions about how to characterise and memorialise the First World War, a discussion which still goes on today – especially today, as we enter the centenary anniversary years – and which has become a political discussion. There are those who prefer to concentrate on the First World War as a strategic victory for Britain, a necessary war which succeeded in halting imperial German expansionism. Others take the view that a global conflict resulting in fourteen million deaths is, in no sense of the word, a victory. The drafts of Anthem for Doomed Youth make clear what Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen thought: this was an abattoir in which men died like animals. ‘In herds’ eventually became ‘like cattle’ to reinforce the idea that on the killing-fields of the Western Front innocents were slaughtered on an industrial scale.

Garmon Rhys and Tim Delap play Owen and Sassoon in World Premiere of Pat Barker's Regeneration

 

It might seem incongruous that in this, one of the most famous of First World War trench-poems, not a word is said about mud or blood or wounds or broken bodies or barbed wire or gas or No Man’s Land. It was routine in France and Flanders during the war to use corpses to prop up dug-outs, form parapets and line trenches: the poem doesn’t mention any of that. There’s nothing about the actual fighting, what the American poet Walt Whitman memorably called ‘the red business’. Instead, the poem is about funerals. In fact, it’s not even about funerals. It’s about the absence of funerals – about a lot of missing things. Yet, arguably, if Owen had tried to describe the full scale of the slaughter, the ways in which the industrialised weapons of mass warfare could destroy the human body, the horrors seen on a daily basis, he – like any other poet – would have lacked literary means capable of doing so. But in fourteen lines about the impossibility of giving proper funeral rites to the numerous dead, he invites the reader to imagine destruction on a scale that defies commemorative marking. The same principle is evident in the poem’s title. In Regeneration (novel and play), we see Sassoon change Owen’s original title from "Anthem for Dead Youth" to "Anthem for Doomed Youth". The amendment doesn’t just add an appropriately knell-like sound. It indicates that the killing is ongoing: the dead are already dead but the doomed are the dead yet to come. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘anthem’ as ‘a song, as of praise or gladness’. But what we can hear in this poem is lingering sorrow. "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is no anthem. In war in which half of those killed left no identifiable body, there was no call for praise or gladness. Instead what Owen wrote with Sassoon’s assistance is a dirge, a non-anthem for the endless dead. 


Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.

 

Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.