Wilfred Owen served as a Lieutenant in the British army during the First World War, ironically he was killed shortly before the Armistice was signed.
Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est is a compelling poem trying to depict the helplessness of soldiers caught in a Gas Chamber. The poet describes the general condition of the men involved in the war, their condition after a shock of a gas attack and then describing the effect of it on someone who lives through it.
The poem begins with a description of a group of soldiers retreating from the front lines of the battlefield. The soldiers are bent over with fatigue and are compared to ‘old beggars under sacks’ clearly indicating the crippled state of the soldiers in the war. They are unable to walk as if their limbs are tied to sacks. The soldiers are coughing like ‘hags’ and kept on cursing and walking through the soft wet soil.
The men are completely fatigues, ‘men marched asleep.’ Many of the soldiers have lost their boots, are seen limping on blood and gore, heightening the grim scene. All of them were lame and blind. The repetition of the fatigued state of the soldiers is evident throughout the first stanza, ‘old beggars under sacks’, ‘men marched asleep’, and then in the final lines of the stanza, ‘Drunk with fatigue.’ The soldiers are so tired that they did not hear the droppings of the Five-Nines behind them.
Someone freaks out, ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ The soldiers are immediately transported into an ‘ecstasy of fumbling.’ They are in a hurry to put on the mask before the deadly poison can take their lives. All except one are successful. He was found ‘yelling and stumbling/ And floundering like a man in fire or lime.’ The narrator looks back and finds the soldier’s protective mask being engulfed into the Green Sea.
The narrator and the other comrades look upon the ‘helpless sight’ of the soldier dying in agony, ‘he plunges at me guttering, choking and drowning.’
In the final stanza of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, the poet describes the face of the dying soldier. The soldier’s lifeless body was flung into the wagon. The poet saw the white eyes of the soldier ‘writhing in his face.’ The face hanging loose from the body and is compared to a face of the devil who is tired of sin. One could hear at every movement, the gargling of the blood from the forth-corrupted lungs. The pain undergone by the soldier is ‘obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile.’ The final four lines re sarcastically composed to undermine the noble statement of patriotism that it is honourable to die for one’s country. The full phrase that Owen has used to end his poem is ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro patria mori’ which can be loosely translated to ‘it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’
“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.”
The poem is composed in three irregular verse paragraphs. The first stanza consists of 8 lines, so do the second and the third which is the most important has 12 lines.
The title of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, is Latin and is taken from a work by the poet, Horace. These words can be translated as ‘sweet and proper.’ The full phrase at the end of the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro patria mori’ can be translated to ‘sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’ But the title and the phrase both are ironical in nature.
Mood and Tone:
The mood of the poem is reflective. The poet is thinking about his own condition in First World War.
The tone of the poem is both ironical and sarcastic. The poet tries to present the realities of war through images and haunting words which on the other hand contradict the reality. It is indeed not sweet to die for one’s country.
Use of Imagery:
What is most noticeable to the readers in Owen’s poetry is the vividness of his imagery. Dulce Et Decorum Est is full of fine imagery. The poet had been successful in bringing the horrors of the war come alive to the eyes of the readers. Some of the imageries are expressed in presented in metaphors, others are presented in graphic language that describes the scene as the narrator sees it or remembers it.
Some of the imageries are discussed below:
“We cursed through sludge” captures and presents the frustrations of the men who were mentally and physically drained of their energies as they marched across the battlefield.
To describe the difficulty faced by the soldiers who have lost their boots, the poet uses imagery to intensify the moment, “But limped on, blood-shod.’ This imagery graphically represented the condition of the men’s feet. A sense of pity is felt by the readers reading those lines.
Other phrases vivid with imagery are “white eyes writhing in the face”, “blood gargling out from the forth-corrupted lungs”, “floundering like a man in fire or lime.” All these imageries are intended to contrast with the Latin maxim from which the poem’s title has been taken, Dulce Et Decorum Est that is “Sweet and Proper” to undergo the disembodiment, suffering and death for one’s own country.
Alliteration is the close repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words to facilitate narration. Examples of alliteration in the poem are
*Watch the white eyes writhing in the face
*Dulce Et Decorum Est
A simile is a figure of speech in which two dissimilar objects are compared and the comparison is made clear by the use of terms like ‘like’, ‘such as’ and so on. Examples of similes in Dulce Et Decorum Est are:
*Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
*coughing like hags
*His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin
Allusion is a reference to other works or cultures in prose and poetry. Here, allusions in the poem are in Line 20 and Line 27-28. In line 20, there is an allusion to the devil- that is evil.
In lines 27-28, the allusion is the most quoted lines of the 20th century.
This poem by Owen is probably about his own gruesome experiences in the First World War.