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.
Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
In this poem by Wilfred Owen there is a larger, political stance and message that finds itself wading through uncertain territory considering the time in which it was written. This poem was written in response to the horrors of World War 1. It begins, like any poem, at the start of stanza one. The men or we could assume that perhaps the author is imagining boys that are old enough to be drafted, but too young to be men. I say this because at the end of the poem he is talking about young children who, if left to the way things currently are, will become the next soldiers. But I digress slightly, The men in stanza 1 are so tired that they are “coughing like hags”. “Knock-kneed” under their sacks like beggars. This poem tells us about the wear and tear of World War 1 on its soldiers.
These men are even too tired to be aware of the incoming gas that is soon upon them and all, but one unlucky soul gets their mask on in time. The gas in question is the popular mustard gas of world war 1. What follows is the debilitating account of it’s effects on one young man for the majority of the rest of the poem. One thing I do like about the relationship between stanza 1 and 2 is that stanza one is the set up for the rest of the poem to carry the actual message which we are not entirely sure what it is until the very end of the poem in the last few lines beginning with, “My friend”. Owen does not simply drop you in the medias res. Why? Because that would not be fitting for the poem’s overall message. The reader needs to have a sense of where this is taking place and that the soldiers are in the midst of battle trying ever so desperately to get to their place of “distant rest”. If you don’t have this then the message loses, for those that agree, its brilliance, for those that disagree, its sting. and for everyone involved and reading, it’s emphasis. There is no glory in dying for one’s country.
I love the use of action words to describe both the way the speaker is feeling watching this soldier suffer as well as the way the mustard gas is having an effect on the injured soldier. I mean words like “smothering dream”, “jolt”, “writhing”, “gargling”. These are all visceral descriptive action words that are perfect to describe the torment of this young soldier and the trauma it leaves on the speaker. These are for the most part dark words with connotations of pain and, even in the case of “smothering”, murder. You could say that the author may even go as far as to say that the person who sends children off to the war with the aforementioned lie is murdering them senselessly much like this mustard gas does to this unfortunate soldier. You could make that suggestion also on the basis that Owen is saying. “you” in the first line of the fourth and last stanza which means that their is an unspoken addressee that could also be the reader.
One thing Ii don’t like about the poem is that is does not have a note of some kind from the author explaining that he is referring to mustard gas or even the translation of the finishing line, because the note given came from Poetry Foundation, but I take this dislike as a bit of knit picking on my part as during his time i’m sure these were common parts of war both in the rhetoric and the instrument. Overall Owen writes a fantastic poem that should really be more popular if only for it’s craftsmanship.