Wilfred Owen

Dulce et Decorum est

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Dulce et Decorum est Summary

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“Dulce et Decorum est” is war poet Wilfred Owen’s poem about the terrors of war. He composed it during World War I, and it was first published in 1920 after his death. The Latin title was taken from the Roman poet Horace and translates to “it is sweet and honorable,” which in the original work of Horace is followed by a line meaning “to die for one’s country.” Its images of war are considered harsh and its opposition to war clear. The basic structure of the poem is close to sonnet form although the spacing is irregular. It is similar to French ballads as well. The poem begins with an anecdote about British soldiers being attacked with chlorine gas. One soldier is unable to put his protective mask on in time, leading to a description of the horrible effects of the chemical. It then casts doubt upon the attitude that it is “honorable to die for one’s county,” suggesting that it would be difficult for anyone who has seen the tragedies of war firsthand to feel that way.

The opening of the poem places the action on the western front in France during World War I amid a rundown group of soldiers who are compared to beggars. They are the downtrodden and described as being blood-shod, that is, wearing shoes of blood as they make their way through the blood that surrounds them. They are lame, blind, fatigued, and deaf. There is no build up to the ravages of battle. Readers, like the soldiers, are engulfed in the gory aftermath of the attack right from the onset. The second stanza identifies the debilitating chemical attack as the cry of, “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” rings out. The narrator sees a comrade drowning as if he were underwater. “Misty panes” add a surreal, delirious-like mood to the situation as if it were being seen clearly yet distorted at the same time.

The scant third stanza of the poem consists of but two lines. “In all my dreams before my helpless sight./He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” These lines serve to place the narrative voice in a central position, so deeply affected by the poisonous gas that his tears are “guttering” or flowing in streams down his face. The final stanza, the longest of the poem, expands the scope of the poem going beyond the descriptions of the travesties of war and to the philosophical implications relative to the readers. If those away from the theater of battle were to experience the ravages first hand—“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud”—they would no longer be able to tell future generations that it is noble to go to war for one’s country. “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie.” While addressed to his readers at large, it is widely believed that with the aforementioned lines from the ending of the poem, Owen was also speaking to journalist Jessie Pope who had published a book titled Jessie Pope’s War Poems in which one in particular, “The Call,” encouraged young men to go to battle. An early draft of Owen’s poem was dedicated to Pope.

The poem’s imagery and similes including “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,” “coughing like hags,” and “eyes writhing in his face,/His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” have led to the poem being considered one of the strongest examples of poetry that gives a true feel for what being in the heat of battle would have been like. The poem is written mostly but not completely in iambic pentameter and makes use of alliteration in several lines. The tone and mood are both downbeat as would be expected given the subject matter. Fighting men who were not long ago robust and vital are wallowing in blood and death. The graphic nature of the poem is fitting as World War I produced more casualties than did World War II and was the first major conflict of the modern era to use tanks and heavy artillery along with the poison gas that is central to the poem.

“Dulce et Decorum est” is likely the best known and most widely anthologized of Owen’s poems, valued for both its literary and its historical contributions. He wrote it while hospitalized with a diagnosis of neurasthenia, commonly referred to in his time as “shell-shock.” While in Craiglockhart hospital, he served as editor of the hospital’s journal, The Hydra. In conjunction with that, he became acquainted with poet Siegfried Sassoon who would influence Owen’s work, but more importantly, champion it after Owen’s death at the age of twenty-five in 1918. During his lifetime, Owen only saw five of his poems published. He left extensive manuscripts, which Sassoon, in conjunction with poets Edith Sitwell and Edmund Blunden, published in the 1920s and 1930s.