A New Anthem for Doomed Youth
As a high school student, I discovered the poetry of Wilfred Owen. He was a British poet, writing of his experiences on the front lines of World War I. Most of his works were created in one year’s time (1917-1918), but because he died in the war, most of his works were published posthumously.
I came upon him accidentally. In the 1980s, the American band, 10,000 Maniacs had released a song, The Latin One. I’d come across it about 10 years later on a used copy of their CD, Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings.
I couldn’t understand what Natalie Merchant was singing, so I looked up the lyrics, which was harder to do in the early 1990s, before the deluge of technologies at our fingertips. I discovered that the lyrics to the song were based on a Wilfred Owen poem, Dulce et Decorum est. I tracked down the poem, read up on its significance, and on Owen himself. This was during the time my [American] generation lived through its first armed conflict, the Persian Gulf War. The poem spelled out the horrors of battle, and decried the romanticized notion of patriotism and war.
I read more of Owen’s poetry, all of it haunting. One title struck me in particular: Anthem for Doomed Youth. My own experiences to that point paled in any measure of significance and impact compared to Owen’s, but the notion appealed to me. It seemed both elegy and tribute.
Flash forward to my college years, the mid/late 1990s. I was, mostly in my mind, an outsider among my peers, whom I felt were disconnected to the notion of humanity, community, and conscience. I often felt surrounded by vanity and superficiality. I was not the most active activist, as I was still somewhat hobbled by my middle class mentality of the obligation of community service, inured by privilege from the experience of injustice. But I was an English major. So even if I couldn’t impactfully act on my sensibilities, I could certainly write about it.
With the hubris of young adulthood, I put my thoughts and judgements to paper, and wrote my very minor epic poem. It was an elegy of my peers, of their willful ignorance of the injustices that took place (mostly) beyond our leafy college campus. I had sent it in to our college literary magazine under a pen name. I suppose I was trepidatious about revealing this part of myself? Or maybe I thought my peers didn’t deserve to know me? I don’t remember anymore.
I hadn’t seen this poem for over 20 years, mostly because I was never a good collector. But given all that is going on today, with the necessity of self-reflection, realignment of values, and the call to resistance, I remembered that I thought about these things in a previous time. Through the marvels of Facebook, I am still virtual friends with the editor of the magazine. After forcing her to sort through her own archives of our past lives, she was kind enough to send me photos of my works from the issues she edited. To my great appreciation and amazement, this included A New Anthem for Doomed Youth:
If I wrote another anthem today, would it be so hopeless? So deprecatory of an entire generation? It was lost on me back then, but not so in the intervening years (and certainly today), that my Dreamers and poetic inspiration were all men. I don’t regret it. I was a product of my time, and surely influenced by the syllabi to which I was subjected.
I know who I am now, who inspires me, and who I aspire to be. Most of all, I am keenly and gratefully aware that I am not alone in what I am willing to fight for:
Dulce et Decorum est por Iustitia mori.