Dulce Et Decorum Est
1 Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
2 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
3 Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
4 And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
5 Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
6 But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
7 Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
8 Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
9 Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
10 Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
11 But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
12 And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.--
13 Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
14 As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
15 In all my dreams before my helpless sight
16 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
17 If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
18 Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
19 And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
20 His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
21 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
22 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
23 Bitter as the cud
24 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
25 My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
26 To children ardent for some desperate glory,
27 The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
28 Pro patria mori
- Wilfred Owen
Dulce et Decorum Est, hailed as the best poem of World War 1, is a skillfully crafted text which has been loved by all for its realistically gritty and gruesome representation of World War 1 and for its ironic quip at those who preach war as glorious.
The first stanza is populated by hunchbacked beggars (line 1), coughing hags (line 2) and soldiers who are more like zombies than men as they lamely march asleep, blind and drunk with fatigue(lines 5, 6, 7). It is this trifold simile, quickly dropped onto the reader with the juxtaposition of a fluid iambic pentameter, that inaugurates the representation of war as three things: identity stripping, individualism forbidding and both body and mind haunting.
Alongside this ghoulish imagery, another juxtaposition is created. This time of the alliteration of contrastingly hard K’s and T’s in the lines 2, 7 and 8, and vague, thumping M’s in line 5. The former bring to mind the cracking of gunshots and the latter conjure up images of missiles hitting the ground. As a result, the apprehension already created in the poem is exacerbated. The resulting tension, combined with the atmospheric imagery, creates a scene that represents war as nothing less than devilish.
The second stanza is a stark contrast to the first. On line 9, Wilfred Owen interrupts the safe iambic pentameter with the short and harsh stabs of “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!”. Not a moment later does the calm become action and the slumbering march an “ecstasy of fumbling” (line 9) as the soldiers try to fit their gas mask. Due to the introduction of gas, the reader realises that this poem is set in World War 1 and with this realisation comes a question: Wasn’t World War 1 normally poetically characterised by patriotism and the honour seeking of young soldiers?
However this hint of irony is quickly snatched from the reader as they are told of a soldier who wasn't able to fit his mask quickly enough. A soldier never given a name, just described as yelling, stumbling, guttering, choking and finally, drowning.
With their depiction of the soldiers as hags, beggars and walking dead, and the replaying of the soldier’ death in in the speaker’s dreams, it is these two stanzas that really expresses the representation of war that Owen was trying to impress upon the reader’s mind: soldiers either die in a nightmare, or live with their bodies forever haunted, and their minds forever taunted.
The final stanza extends the imagery of the dying man with alliteration, sibilance, linking rhyme and even a reference to satan himself. The second important part to this stanza is the shift in setting and purpose; the poem now becomes a challenging question posed to the reader. At first, it seems as though the soldier is still speaking. However, the reader soon realizes that speaker is now Wilfred Owen himself.
With the words ‘My Friend’ on line 25, Owen is actually making a direct reference to a poet named Jessie Pope, who with her famous poem “Who’s For The Game”, ignorantly compared war to a sporting match. It is her whom Owen reproaches when he, after declaring it a ‘Lie’, quotes the famous Latin words of Homer, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. Ending the poem the poem in such a way has a great affect; the irony sinks in, and so does the final facet of Owen’s representation of World War 1: a rebuke to all poets who hail war merry.