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Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Wilfred Owen

Portrait of Wilfred Owen

Introduction and Text of "Dulce et Decorum Est"

Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," likely the most widely anthologized war poem ever published, plays out in four movements. The first movement consists of eight lines with the rime scheme ABABCDCD; the second consists of six lines with the rime scheme ABABCD.

The third movement is merely two lines, but its content requires that it stand out from the others although it continues the rime scheme from the preceding movement CD. The fourth movement consists of twelve lines, with the rime scheme ABABCDCDEFEF.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our 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.

Reading of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"

Commentary

This most famous war poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," dramatizes the misery of war primarily by portraying a scene depicting a soldier killed by mustard gas.

First Movement: Marching Soldiers

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our 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.

In the first movement, the speaker presents the march of soldiers who have been in hard combat; now their supplies have been used up, and they desperately require medical attention. The speaker is one of the soldiers who is dramatizing the activity of his fellow soldiers. He puts forth the image of their being stooped over, looking like "old beggars" under their heavy "sacks." They wobble on unsteady legs, as they cough and trudge through the mud.

The condition is harrowing and quickly becoming even more so: they have great difficulty just outpacing the shells of enemy gas fallen behind them as they try to move out of harm’s way. Many of these soldiers now possess no footwear; thus, their bare feet are bleeding as they head toward their "distant rest" with much difficulty. They are fatigued nearly into the inability to function at all.

Second Movement: Poison Gas Attack

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.

Suddenly, a man yells out, "Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!" They all commence shuffling about, putting on their "clumsy helmets"—all but one poor victim who cannot place his mask on in time. The speaker dramatizes the afflicted soldier's plight, describing the scene as horrible and ghastly.

Because of the manner in which mustard gas attacks the lungs making the victim feel as if he is drowning, the speaker is, therefore, accurate in dramatizing the expiring man as a victim of drowning.

The speaker compares the scene to one that takes place "under a green sea," as he paints the image of the way the air appears after the soldiers had been blasted with mustard gas. The air actually looked like ocean water, and the soldier who was unable to pull on his helmet soon enough becomes a drowning victim.

Third Movement: Continuing Nightmares

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

This movement features only two lines, and artistically, these lines do belong in its stand alone movement. They express the poignancy of the speaker's feelings and therefore deserve to be emphasized.

The speaker finds himself continuing to be disturbed from seeing his fellow solider die such an excruciating death from the mustard gas. That scene has become a recurring nightmare for the speaker, even though he is recalling it likely many years after it happened.

Fourth Movement: The Horatian Quotation

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.

Addressing his audience in the final movement, the speaker now inserts his conclusion, his evaluation of war based on the horrific scene he has portrayed and the nightmares in which it continues to be played out.

The speaker employs the old adage from a Horatian quotation: "Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." But the speaker now believes that Horace’s claim that is it "sweet and right to die for one’s country is nothing and "old Lie."

Wilfred Owen, in fact, did serve as a British soldier in World War I, and it is likely that he experienced a scene that he has his speaker describe in the poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est." Owen therefore is likely to have come to believe his speaker's assessment of the Horatian quotation. Despite the speaker's personal opinion, the poem is masterfully written and masterfully puts on display the speaker's mind-set.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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