This poem was written sometime between September and October 1917 when Owen was being treated for shell shock in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Like many of Owen’s other poems, this one too deals with the untimely and unsung death of young soldiers. This poem is composed in the style of the classic Petrarchan sonnet while employing the rhyme scheme of the English one.
Soldiers are dying in their droves, some cut down in their prime by enemy guns, some of disease but they all die unsung. At the front, there are no church services, no peeling of bells, no flowers on coffins. Owen tries to find what can be compared to these rituals and comes up with the boom of guns, tears in the eyes of sons and friends and the pallor of wives and daughters while they mourn for the death of the young men.
While in the hospital, being treated for shell shock, Owen would have droves of injured soldiers. In the front, he would have seen friends and buddies being cut down leaving the survivors hardly any time or opportunity to mourn. This bitterness has found its way into this poem. Deaths are usually associated with coffins decorated with flowers, church services, choir and mourners. But when soldiers die in war, none of these are seen.
There are no peelings of bells for dying soldiers; their deaths are marked by rat-a-tat of guns that serve as prayers for the dead. The wail of the shells are the songs of choristers and from the shires, bugles mourn the passing of their dead. The soldiers die as cattle, unsung and not mourned.
There are no candles lit for the young men save the glimmer of tears in the eyes of their kin and friends. The pallor on the faces of the grieving wives, sisters and friends shall be the pall for the coffins. There will be no flowers for them either and dusk will be closing of blinds as a sign of respect and mourning. Though written in the style of classic Petrarchan sonnet, this poem is often printed without the stanzas being divided.
All of Owen’s poetry mourns the unnecessary deaths of young soldiers fighting a war that they can barely comprehend. At the front, there are no ceremonial burials, no church services and no eulogies from friends and family. A hastily dug grave and a muttered prayer is the only good-bye they are accorded.