The speaker says there are no bells for those who die "like cattle" – all they get is the "monstrous anger of the guns". They have only the ragged sounds of the rifle as their prayers. They get no mockeries, no bells, no mourning voices except for the choir of the crazed "wailing shells" and the sad bugles calling from their home counties.
There are no candles held by the young men to help their passing, only the shimmering in their eyes to say goodbye. The pale faces of the girls will be what cover their coffins, patient minds will act as flowers, and the "slow dusk" will be the drawing of the shades.
This searing poem is one of Owen's most critically acclaimed. It was written in the fall of 1917 and published posthumously in 1920. It may be a response to the anonymous preface from Poems of Today (1916), which proclaims that boys and girls should know about the poetry of their time, which has many different themes that "mingle and interpenetrate throughout, to the music of Pan's flute, and of Love's viol, and the bugle-call of Endeavor, and the passing-bells of death."
The poem owes its more mature imagery and message to Owen's introduction to another WWI poet, Siegfried Sassoon, while he was convalescing in Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital in August 1917. Sassoon was older and more cynical, and the meeting was a significant turning point for Owen. The poem is structured as a Petrarchan sonnet with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme and is an elegy or lament for the dead. Owen's meter is mostly iambic pentameter with some small derivations that keep the reader on his or her toes as they read. The meter reinforces the juxtapositions in the poem and the sense of instability caused by war and death.
Owen begins with a bitter tone as he asks rhetorically what "passing-bells" of mourning will sound for those soldiers who die like cattle in an undignified mass. They are not granted the rituals and rites of good Christian civilians back home. They do not get real prayers, only rifle fire. Their only "choirs" are of shells and bugles. This first set of imagery is violent, featuring weapons and harsh noises of war. It is set in contrast to images of the church; Owen is suggesting organized religion cannot offer much consolation to those dying on the front. Kenneth Simcox writes, "These religious images...symbolize the sanctity of life – and death – while suggesting also the inadequacy, the futility, even meaninglessness, of organized religion measured against such a cataclysm as war. To 'patter out' is to intone mindlessly, an irrelevance. 'Hasty' orisons are an irreverence. Prayers, bells, mockeries only."
In the second stanza the poem slows down and becomes more dolorous, less enraged. The poet muses that the young men will not have candles – the only light they will get will be the reflections in their fellow soldiers' eyes. They must have substitutions for their coffin covers ("palls"), their flowers, and their "slow dusk". The poem has a note of finality, of lingering sadness and an inability to avoid the reality of death and grief.
The critic Jon Silkin notes that, while the poem seems relatively straightforward, there is some ambiguity: "Owen seems to be caught in the very act of consolatory mourning he condemns...a consolation that permits the war's continuation by civilian assent, and is found ambiguously in the last line of the octet." Owen might be trying to make the case that his poetry is a more realistic form of the expression of grief and the rituals of mourning.