Text of the Owen's Poem

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 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.

Footnotes

  1. This image, which likens nightfall to the “drawing-down of blinds,” evokes both the end of a day and, more broadly and metaphorically, the end of a life. Dusk falls slowly, perhaps indicating that the process of grief is long and fraught. Grief is interminable, and as night falls and dawn emerges, the grieving process begins all over again the next day. The image of dusk descending into night echoes the lyrics to taps: “Day is gone, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake...fades the light.” Owen connects the two stanzas together by concluding this stanza as he does the last—with the sound of taps to signal an ending.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. This stanza, like the first, describes the emptiness of war—even in the grieving process. Boys without candles shine light through “holy glimmers of goodbyes,” and girls without veils wear their brows like palls. None of the mourners have flowers, a symbol to represent quiet contemplation to honor the dead, but they do have “patient minds.” As they wait to hear of news overseas about the young soldiers, they must rely on their patience to carry them through the arduous process of grieving.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. In the Christian church, the word “pall” refers to the cloth placed over an altar during the Eucharist as well as the cloth draped over a coffin during a funeral. The girls’ pallid brows serves as a metaphor for the mourning veils—“their palls”—traditionally worn over the faces of the grieving. The absence of actual veils underscores the absence of funeral rites; after all, the soldiers have died overseas.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The speaker takes the dark, deathly funerary images from the first stanza and recasts them to describe the other side of war: the grieving process. Instead of bullets and death, the speaker envisions the mourning boys whose tears glimmer in their eyes. By describing the other side of war, the speaker creates an introspective, meditative tone. He establishes that the mourner’s grief is spiritual and perpetual, unlike the earthly, finite scenes of the first stanza.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The first stanza describes the horrors of war in the present, whereas the second stanza imagines the mourning process in the future. The speaker envisions how the boys and girls will grieve their loved ones—the deceased soldiers—after the war.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Here, the verb “to speed” means to assist in order to help someone succeed, as in the expression “Godspeed” used to offer someone good blessings for starting a new journey. In this stanza, the speaker considers what might help the soldiers prosper. His reply is mixed: he has expressed belief in the futility of war and the disregard for the soldiers’ lives, but he suggests that the mourners may still maintain hope by remembering the young soldiers in their eyes and minds.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The second stanza has transitioned to the location of the shires. In contrast to the first, the second illustrates a quiet environment, far from the mayhem of war. The candle provides a distinct image against all the clanking, hideous sounds of war and suggests quietude and contemplation.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The final line of the first stanza announces the transition from the foreign war zone to the home country. The bugles call for the soldiers from “shires,” regions or counties in England under the rule of a governor or bishop. In the second stanza, the poem takes on a sombre tone and shifts to the grieving, or “sad,” homes of the fallen soldiers.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. At the end of the first stanza, the speaker employs the word “bugles,” which are a trumpet-like wind instrument traditionally associated with the military—in particular, the funeral call “Taps.” Since 1891, in accordance with army infantry regulations, the military has been required to play taps at all military funeral services. The bugles, always played at dusk, signal the end of the day. In the context of the poem, the bugles call for the soldiers, bringing a close to the soldiers’ lives.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The adjective “shrill” indicates that the bullets are like high-pitched, piercing screams, whereas the terms “demented” and “wailing” add a dimension of bedlam. The “wailing shells” come as a “choir,” meaning that the bullets whiz past incessantly and without rest. These word choices serve as auditory imagery to emphasize how the bullets whip past the heads of soldiers, who are perhaps crouched inside trenches. Additionally, the metaphor of the shells constituting a choir underscores the poem’s broader conceit concerning the sacrilegious, graceless nature of warfare.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Negative words, such as “no” or “nor” in this passage, typically emphasize an absence or emptiness. Since the speaker begins this line and the next with such words, this suggests a belief in the emptiness, or the futility, of war.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. To further the sombre funeral imagery, the speaker describes the gunfire as “hasty orisons,” or prayers. Since the speaker calls the orison “hasty,” this word choice not only adds to the overall sense of the urgency and chaos of war but also reiterates the lack of ceremony for the soldiers.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The verb “to patter” has two definitions: rapid tapping or the mechanical recitation of a prayer. In this context, both definitions accurately describe how the speaker hears the sounds of the guns as rapid and relentless. However, the second definition adds a religious element to the sounds of the guns. The shots of the rifle act as a stand-in for the church bell.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The poem closely follows the 14-line rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet, except for lines eleven and twelve, which are inverted. Most of the poem also maintains a consistent iambic pentameter, except for the first three lines. The first and third lines end with an added unstressed syllable, while lines two and three begin with a stressed syllable. This creates a sense of instability and volatility, especially compared to the rigid iamb structure of the second stanza.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. Here, the speaker employs another auditory image. The diction, which includes words like “rattle” and “stuttering,” evokes an image of guns’ firing in rapid succession. This image is furthered by Owen’s use of consonance, in the repetition of the r consonant in “rifles’ rapid rattle” and the trio of t sounds in “stuttering” and “rattle.” The consonance mimics, through onomatopoeia, the bursting sounds of rifles.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. This first stanza is replete with auditory imagery. The soldiers may not hear the sounds of the passing-bell; however, they hear the guns, which the speaker describes as having “monstrous anger.” The meaning of the term “monstrous” contributes to this image of piercing sound: frightening in appearance and inhumane. In this context, the imagery of the guns not only evokes terrifying pieces of artillery but also heinous devices of murder.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The speaker begins the second and third lines of the poem with the phrase “only the,” which emphasizes that the only noise soldiers hear is the sound of guns and rifles. The speaker’s disillusionment emerges as he laments that soldiers do not hear the sounds of civilian life, only the ruthless, ceaseless sounds of war.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. In saying that the soldiers die “as cattle,” the speaker creates a simile which compares the value of their lives to those of cattle. Cattle are domesticated creatures, bred for slaughter or the production of milk. In this simile, the speaker asserts that these men are without autonomy or power. Their leaders send them to war—like cattle to pasture—where they die vainly and without commemoration.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The word “passing-bell” refers to a church bell rung following a death to signal a moment of mourning and prayer. This word choice serves as auditory imagery, evoking the sound of bells rung for funerary service. Thus, the speaker immediately establishes a somber tone to the poem, one which contrasts sharply against the backdrop of war.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. Both stanzas open with a question that suggests the speaker’s disillusionment with war. With this initial question, the speaker wonders whether “these who die as cattle,” meaning the soldiers, will receive their passing-bells—the bells traditionally tolled as part of a funeral. In asking this question, the speaker laments the fact the young soldiers don’t receive the proper commemoration—their sacrifices heralded with the sounds of war.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff