Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" - Owlcation - Education
Updated date:

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

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. Owen employs his poem in service of making a political statement—one that statist politicos and their media complex eagerly embrace.

(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, "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks." They are furthermore, "Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, [cursing] through sludge."

The condition is harrowing and quickly becoming even more so: they have great difficulty just outpacing the "gas-shells dropping softly behind." Many of the men 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 poor soldier's plight, describing the scene as ghastly, indeed. 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: "In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." 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 becomes arrogantly didactic insisting on what his audience should think: if they saw what he saw, they would know better than to lie to the young and encourage them to go off to war.

The efficacy of war is always a hot-button political issue with patriots vs objectors, the latter usually left-wing zealots who have no difficulty enjoying the benefits gained from those who have had to go to war to attain or keep those benefits, yet possess no inclination to "give back" or offer aid to their fellow citizens. No one would argue against the claim that, "war is hell." However, if your country (or freedom to live your life according to your own beliefs) is being attacked, and you and your family are likely to become victims of a Hitler, Mussolini, or caliphate-seeking jihadist, the choice to battle against such tyranny also becomes an issue against which one who loves freedom could never successfully argue.

Do freedom-loving individuals ever truly accept the old Cold War saw, "Better red than dead"? Or do they concur with that great patriot, Patrick Henry, who averred, "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

Politics vs Honor

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 arrogant and erroneous didacticism. Despite this insertion of a political issue, the poem is masterfully written and masterfully puts on display the speaker's mind-set, however misguided it proves to be.

In spite of the fact that, "war is hell" and soldiers often serve under wretched conditions and die performing their duty, those who serve do so with the clear conscience of honor. They serve because they bravely accept their duty. They serve with honor. They die with honor. They do not dishonor their service and that of their fellow soldiers by attempting to diminish the necessity of that service. They simply do their duty serving their country because that is what soldiers do.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes