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.
Summary of Dulce Et Decorum Est :
Though the poem is not directly divided into so many stanzas we can discern three basic movements and a climax. We can divide the poem into three stanzas.
First stanza –
The first stanza or movement might comprise of the first eight lines. Here Owen is describing the soldiers as unwilling to fight and marching in their sleep. They are dog tired. It does not matter if bombs keep exploding near them. They just walk on to their place of rest. The stanza brings out the pathetic existence of the soldiers.
Second stanza –
The next eight lines comprise the second stanza or movement. Here the action begins abruptly as in
another poem called Exposure by the same master. The gas attack comes suddenly like a bad news and engulfs one weary soldier who got confused or too tired to wear his mask. The soldier drowns in the green sea of the gas but soon re-surfaces only to garb at the poet and make him see death up close and personal.
Third stanza –
The remaining lines make the hulk of the poem. The movement loses its pace once more as if after a sudden storm there comes an uneasy calm. This part is the most appealing of the poem. It’s ironic that the most offensive lines which describe the horrific after effects of death are the most appealing. The dead soldier is carried on a cart as if it is dead cattle. Indeed, Owen compares soldiers
with so many cattle. The poet describes the corruption of the lungs and the gargling of the blood that frequently wells up whenever the cart gets a bump. The soldiers body instead of being compared with a peaceful child as has been done traditionally by war poets (including Rimbaud in Asleep in the Valley), the soldier’s face is compared with a sin-sick devil. The readers are disgusted to see this anti-heroic, even anti-humanitarian image. This goes along with the bland statement that after seeing this spectacle one should never say that its glorious for one to die for the nation.
One of the best anti-war poems of Owen punctures the age old idea of heroics associated with war and soldiers. As in usual with Owen, the tone of the lines is bitter and satiric. Yet this time the satire is more direct. Ironically, (which is one of the prime devices of Owen’s expression) the words do not really mark war but the casualty of war. This description of the casualty is rather graphic.
Interestingly, the words those pertains to war, rather belongs to the register of war like – ‘haunting flares’, ‘five-nines’ ‘helmets’ etc. are rather too specific for the casual reader of the poems. However, we should keep in mind the fact that, in order to appreciate the poems in a proper manner, we should have an understanding of the diction and register of warfare. However, as already mentioned, most of the words, specially, which comes towards the end of the poem are specific to disease and death and that too stripped of all glories.
The words like, ‘drowning’, ‘writhing’, ‘choking’ etc. are symptoms of the symptoms of death itself. Closely associated with the idea of the choice of words are Owen’s ear for music and the words he chooses is based on his desire to create a sad music of bleakness. The words like ‘fumbling’, ‘stumbling’, ‘gargling’ do create an eerie music that chills our spines and yet we cannot deny that they create music. so instead of hearing the still sad music of humanity along with Wordsworth what we are hearing is the ‘sad sadist music of war’. And all this music is created by words and their mutual plays.
Structurally the poem could be divided into three movements. The first shows the painful trudge of the soldier through mud and other natural obstacles in a field of war. Owen highlights that these soldiers got tired not from battles but from trekking and waiting while death is often swift and unannounced. These soldiers are so tired that they don’t even care if bombs fall around them. They look towards their ‘distant rest’ and care for nothing else. The second movement contrasting with the first involves rapid action. They are attacked by gas and while most of them could wear their masks, gaseous death capture one soldier unawares.
He is confused in front of painful death. He seems to have been in a stupor from tiredness from the long trek. The third and final movement is again slow and the most graphic of all where the poet describes the result of the gas attack on the poor soldier. How his lungs got corrupted due to the gas and how the movement of the blood makes certain sounds while they carry the dead soldier on a cart. The climax of this episode comes when the poet declares that after looking at this farce one should not say that it will be glorious to die for the nation.
The comparisons of soldiers with hags and beggars itself is enough to carry out the intention of the poem too minimize the heroic image of the soldier in front of the reading public. Instead of calling them as heroes the poem calls the soldiers diminutive creatures. Other similes where the corrupted lungs are compared with cancer or the face is compared with that of the devil himself is deliberately made to look the business of war rather disrespectful.
Tone of the Poem: The poem is anti-war in tone. The narrator describes the whole incident in first person manner thereby putting himself among the helpless soldiers so as to give the poem a real picture. From the beginning of the poem, the soldiers are shown as lame deaf, blind etc. then it narrates the death incident. It is followed by Owen’s universal message to the warmonger. In all these incidents, we don’t have any glorious things to see. This is the reality of any war. It only causes destruction of youths and their dreams. Concerning invocation and request and the message of reality, the poem is a parody about war and its delusions. Owen’s intention is only to present the reality of war and thereby mocking the ambiguous sentimentality about war.
Finally, we can say that Owen has realistically portrayed the horrid picture of the battlefield. In other poems also Owen has portrayed the futility of war. In a global world as we live in, Owen’s poetic oeuvre is typically significant which can bring a perfect world of peace and out of destruction. This poem also projects the horror of the battlefield as well as the mental pain of the soldiers Owen directly hits the romantic illusion of war and attacks the warmongers. The Latin phrase, which was used at the time of the World War I, is proved to be useless. Owen requests people not to tell illusions to the children. It is universal in tone to request not to believe any glory of war.
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