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Dulce et Decorum Est - A War Poem by Wilfred Owen - English literature

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

 

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

 

A group of soldiers are returning form the Western Front for a period of respite during the First World War. The language is formal - the poet is revealing the horrific reality of war. The context is serious. It creates an emotive atmosphere as the poet aims to convey a message to the reader. The poem is mainly written in iambic pentameter. Most lines have ten syllables; the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is not always the same but each line has either five or six stresses. The title of the poem, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, essentially means , 'It is sweet and glorious to die for one's country.' Wilfred Owen uses the Latin title satirically since we already know that war is anything but heroic and glorious.


The lexis is emotive. It is through the poet’s choice of words and variation in the stress patterns that Owen creates a dramatic atmosphere. Bent double [1.1] gives the impression of a blow to the stomach or over-burdened with sorrows. Knock Kneed and coughing [1.2] are pointers to their appalling state of health due to lack of nutrition and the possibility of consumption. The reference to old beggars and hags disturbs the reader because the men’s physical and emotional health does not reflect the stereotypical image and strength of patriotic soldiers. In our mind’s eye, we can picture that image very vividly.

 

A veil of great weariness is cast over the scene. The men are marching half asleep. They are so tired that the artillery shells that fall close by seem to miss their aim because they too are weary. The men are projecting their own tiredness onto everything around them. They turn their backs on the haunting flares as if they have become indifferent to suffering; they have ‘switched off’. In their fatigue they are stunned and senseless, as if all human spirit has abandoned them. They are shell-shocked. Their senses have been overwhelmed by the reality of their horrible experiences.

 

The poem uses the past tense throughout and it is evidently made up of the recollections of one of the soldiers. By using the first person plural pronounwe , [1.2] the poet reveals that he was one of those men. Although he is sharing his experience, the reader is excluded from the reference by the word we. This serves to intensify the atmosphere in that the use of the inclusive pronoun links the poet directly to the descriptions making them more horrific. It also causes the reader to recognise that he, or she, can never truly understand the nature of what these men have endured, although they will feel great empathy. The reader feels involved in a detached sort of way, and of course, hope that such appalling situations do not happen to them.

 

The modifiers are emotive and convey a disturbing picture. The adjectives lame, blind and deaf also serve to suggest the soldier’s detachment from reality. Antithesis is used to reinforce a sense of two different worlds. They are out of kilter, unsure of their location or identity. It is as if they are lost souls trudging eternally through Hades or the damned hell of the medieval Christian poet, Dante. The connotations of the verbs are also disturbing. Although the dynamic verb, marched [1.5] is used to describe the soldiers, it is used in conjunction with the adverbial asleep. Other verbs describing their movements such as trudge [1.4] and limped [1.6] also emphasise the physical and emotional weariness of the men. Many have lost their boots in the mud and sludge of the rain-filled trenches. The neologism, blood-shod, is disturbing since it refers to the the congealed blood on the men’s feet which provide the appearance that they are wearing their boots. Subject specific nouns like flares and gas shells identify the military context. Owen uses the word men instead of soldiers which draws attention to the fact that these are ordinary men. The verb modifier, haunting, is symbolic of the experience from which the men are retreating but from which they cannot escape in their minds.

 

In the second stanza, a sudden, a violent event occurs that shatters the deadened atmosphere of the previous one. “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” In their confusion, fear and a rush of adrenalin, the men have only a few seconds to put on their masks to protect them from the toxic, acrid gas that has been released from a shell. They fumble and manage to get the helmets on in the nick of time. But one man cannot:

 

 

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

The poet then suddenly pulls the reader out of the narrated war scene and into his own nightmares:

 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

The reader is confused; was it a dream or was it real? The narrator feels that it does not really matter. To be witness to this scene is to be doomed to repeat it over and over again in nightmares. He suffers the agony of what he witnessed repeatedly. Wilfred Owen reinforces this sense of identity of dream and reality in his only departure from the otherwise strict alternating rhyme scheme [ABABCDCDEFEF etc.]. In the two line stanza that mentions Owen’s dreams, rather than rhyming with the word “drowning” in line fourteen from the previous stanza, Owen exactly repeats the word “drowning,” thus implying that this scene must recur over and over without change.

 

In the final stanza, the poem once again shifts from the poet’s dream to his address to the reader. The reader is presumed to be a person on the home front who has never experienced the horror of war and who naively believes that war is glorious and ennobling. Owen angrily wishes that his reader could be haunted by dreams like his own - to feel drowned and smothered with guilt and horror, just as Owen is because of the gassed soldier that had been under his command. Although he cannot literally bring this haunting about - through his poem and its grotesque details, he can force his reader to confront the ugly reality of war that masks behind fine phrases and edifying sentiments. 'Legal' wars are always instigated, financed and strategically arranged by wealthy government power-elites, with soldiers used as pawns. Enormous sums of money are made in the weapon trade. Irrespective of the weapons used, the poet and the reader know that war is sick. It causes many of us to question what really lies beneath the veneer of 'civilisation'. The violent ape. The more powerful and wealthier a nation becomes, the more deadly the weapons sought to protect it, or more specifically, to protect ruling elite's economies and their lifestyles. They fear usurpation. The 'ordinary' civilians: children, women, the young lads in Wilfred Owen's poem, suffer mercilessly. The poem causes many to philosophise about how politicians, military personnel and newsreaders speak 'sophisticatedly' and matter-of-factly about invasion and counter-invasion with a subtle but detectable bias toward the country in which they happen to reside. The same detached tone talks about the inevitability of collateral damage, about which countries are allied, the wealthy nations always allied with those most useful for its purposes. Nations boast about how modern weapons are becoming 'increasingly sophisticated and accurate.' Imperatively, it points to the danger of patriotism. Owen lingers over the sounds and sight of the dying body, destroyed by the poisonous gas. In six horrifying lines, he drags his reader slowly up to the brink of death. He displays the eyes moving convulsively about in the paralysed face. He conveys the soldier’s unspeakable suffering. He exhibits the blood and fluid that bubble up from the burned and blistered lungs. He describes the gargling and croaking noises that the man makes as his body is jolted along the road in the wagon into which it has been “flung.” And finally, the poet takes us into the mouth of the man himself, forcing us to feel with him the sensation of his chewing and biting to relieve the pain of his burnt, ulcerated, swollen tongue. It is a horrible poem, meant to shock the reader into realising the full horrors of war. And of course - it does.

 

The grammar is marked by the compression and omission of grammatical function words which is typical of poetry. The compression and omission contributes to the intensity of the atmosphere.The sentence structures are varied: the poet uses a mixture of simple, compound and complex sentences. This is appropriate because he is both recounting personal experiences using a descriptive narrative style and conveying a message about the depravities of war. Simple compound sentences are emphatic, stating facts in an unemotional way which makes the horror of the poet's descriptions all the more brutal and grotesque.

 

Owen’s final lines are addressed to teachers and parents who have helped prepare young men to go to war but left them totally unprepared for anything they would actually face. Many of these soldiers, Owen implies, were little more than children who thought they were going off on some high adventure, having been taught that war was a glorious thing, that death ennobles youth, and that they would prove their valour and virtue in combat. But the war being fought in trenches with gas and machine guns is vile and cruel. Its violence strikes anonymously and destroys young bodies in the ugliest and most revolting of ways. Men live like rats, covered in lice. Death has the last word not glory. Moreover, we should cease to fool ourselves about it. Owen insists on the innocence of the dying man’s tongue, so as to contrast it with the lack of innocence of those whose tongues that continue to speak and teach the Old Lie, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

 

 

 

 

 

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