A commentary on one of the most famous war poems
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or, to give the phrase in full: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, Latin for ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ (patria is where we get our word ‘patriotic’ from). The phrase originated in the Roman poet Horace, but in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) famously rejects this idea. For Owen, who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare and a gas attack, there was nothing sweet, and nothing fitting, about giving one’s life for one’s country. Focusing in particular on one moment in the First World War, when Owen and his platoon are attacked with poison gas, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a studied analysis of suffering and perhaps the most famous anti-war poem ever written.
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.
In October 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart Hospital: ‘Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!’ Although he drafted the poem that October, the surviving drafts of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ show that Owen revised and revisited it on several occasions thereafter, before his death the following November – one week before the Armistice.
Although he wrote all his poetry while he was still a young man – he died aged just 25, like the poet he so admired, John Keats – Wilfred Owen was a master of form and metre, although the extent to which ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is carefully structured is not necessarily apparent from reading it (and certainly not from hearing it read aloud). The first two stanzas, comprising eight lines and six lines respectively, form a traditional 14-line sonnet, with an octave (eight-line section) and sestet (six-line section). The ababcdcd of the first eight lines summon the Shakespearean sonnet, but the succeeding six lines disrupt the expectations of an English sonnet: what should run efefgg instead runs efefgh, with an extra rhyme introduced, and we realise we must read on beyond the 14 lines of a sonnet: the horrific experience of war cannot be summed up neatly in a pretty little sonnet. (Although Owen did write sonnets elsewhere, most famously ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, there he is not describing the events of warfare but rather discussing more generally the senseless waste of life that the war caused.) The line break after the fourteenth line only brings this home: there’s a pause, and then we find ourselves returning to the word ‘drowning’, locked in it, fixating on that word, ‘drowning’ to describe the helpless state of the poor soldier suffocating from poison gas. The helplessness, of course, is Owen’s too, being unable to do anything for his falling comrade: all we can do is watch in horror.
The imagery is as striking and memorable as the structure, though a little more explicit: the first stanza bombards us with a series of similes for the exhausted men trudging through mud (‘like old beggars’, ‘coughing like hags’) and more direct metaphors (‘blood-shod’ suggesting feet caked in blood, implying trench-foot and cut legs; with ‘shod’ putting us in mind of horses, perhaps being used to plough a very different kind of muddy field; and ‘drunk with fatigue’ bitterly reminding us that this isn’t some sort of beer-fuelled jolly, a bunch of friends out for a night on the town).
Then we are shocked by the double cry of ‘Gas! GAS!’ at the beginning of the second stanza, with the two successive heavy stresses grabbing our attention, much as the cry from one soldier to his comrades is designed to – and they all fumble for their masks, struggling to put them in place to protect them against the deadly gas attack. The word ‘ecstasy’ is another bitterly ironic take, preparing the ground for that ironic final stanza: these soldiers are ecstatic not with delirious pleasure but simply with delirium and panic. As I mentioned in the formal analysis above, the repetition of ‘drowning’ is a touch of genius: where the other rhymes all advance the poem (sludge/trudge, fumbling/stumbling), drowning/drowning brings us to a dead halt. Even after he physically witnessed the soldier dying from the effects of the poison gas, Owen cannot forget it: it haunts his dreams, a recurring nightmare. The recurrence of the word ‘drowning’ neatly conveys this.
In that final stanza, Owen turns what until now has been a descriptive poem into a piece of anti-war propaganda, responding with brilliant irony to the patriotic poets such as Jessie Pope (whom Owen specifically has in mind here), who wrote jingoistic doggerel that encouraged young men to enlist and ‘do their bit for king and country’. If people like Pope, Owen argues, addressing her directly (‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace…’), could witness what he has witnessed, and were forced to relive it in their dreams and waking thoughts every day and night, they would not in all good conscience be able to write such pro-war poetry, knowing they were encouraging more men to share the horrific fate of the soldier Owen had seen killed. Jessie Pope and her ilk would not be able to feed the ‘Old Lie’, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, to impressionable young men (some of them so young they are still ‘children’: it’s worth remembering that some boys lied about their age so they could join up) who are ‘ardent for some desperate glory’.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a fine example of Owen’s superb craftsmanship as a poet: young he may have been, and valuable as his poetry is as a window onto the horrors of the First World War, in the last analysis the reason we value his response to the horrific events he witnessed is that he put them across in such emotive but controlled language, using imagery at once true and effective. As he put it in the draft preface he wrote for his poems: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.’
Continue to explore the world of war poetry with our post about Leicestershire’s forgotten war poet, the little-known poetry of WWI poet F. V. Branford, and T. E. Hulme’s powerful modernist poem from the trenches. Some of the finest war poems from that conflict, including many classic poems by Wilfred Owen, are collected in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Penguin Classics).