Dulce Et Decorum Est, or is it?

Image

Wilfred Owen was a soldier during WWI that died in the front lines at age 25. His haunting poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is considered to be the plea of a dead soldier. The question remains, what was Owen pleading for? The poem begins:

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.

Owen introduces the metaphors “like beggars” and “like hags” in order to illustrate the poor conditions he and his fellow soldiers are living through. They are exhausted and crippled. They are sick, and deaf from the constant gunshots. They have nothing more to look forward to than “distant rest” – this could be simply their camp for the night, but i think it eludes to the endless rest that death brings. These men are the walking dead. Owen wants his audience to feel the power of their story, and to realize that war is not fun.

In the next stanza, Owen reflects on a gas attack that he lived through. Gas was just another industrialized way to rack up the death toll, it wasn’t just about hand-to-hand combat anymore. Owen fumbled and fitted his helmet in time, but another soldier was not quite so lucky:

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.

Owen watches this man die a horrible toxic death, safe behind the green lenses of his own gas mask. He then has survivors guilt and this man haunts his dreams. He dies over and over while Owen remains helpless, listening to the sounds of him guttering – a word choice that invokes the image of the sucking sound created when water flows down the gutter. Owen uses the word drowning twice in order to reiterate the fact that this man essentially drown in his own fluids. This stanza made me feel physically ill, and was meant to show that war is not pretty.

The very last stanza is no longer about Owen’s experiences. It is a direct challenge aimed at Jessie Pope, a popular editor of patriotic poetry at the time (the poem was originally dedicated to her, so she is the audience):

If in 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.

I include the whole stanza because the beginning informs the end. Owen is very graphically offering his experiences up on a platter to Pope (“my friend”). He tells her that if she was in his shoes or had any real idea of the horrors of war, she wouldn’t so happily inspire children to enlist. He ends with a quote from an ode by Horace that translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Apparently this quote was popular during WWI, and was used to convince men that it was their duty to go to war. Owen bitterly refers to it as “the old lie.” He wants Pope to re-think her position, and to stop pushing military service on young men who want to be remembered for doing something important. Owen has seen war and feels that it is not heroic or pretty or fun. He is the ultimate authority since he lost his life in one of the most grisly wars in history.

I can’t help but wonder if this poem changed Pope’s mind? It certainly would have changed mine. I think that this poem is even more powerful when read aloud, so I will leave you with this:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qts3K3KznN4

And also a favorite quote of mine:

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” -John F. Kennedy

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18 thoughts on “Dulce Et Decorum Est, or is it?

    • Thank you Diane. I had such a visceral and almost uncomfortable response to this poem, and it’s power informed the way I wrote about it. War is no little thing, and I am sometimes irritated by how trivial a thing it seems to be to some.

  1. What I really liked about this poem is that Wilfred Owen doesn’t try to sugar coat the reality of his experiences. He uses such vivid wording that it does make you sick to your stomach like when he writes: ” the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (page 235). Such a phrasing really puts a horrid image in your head, but I enjoyed the purpose of the poem; which of course was to show Pope that she had no business telling men it was their duty to join. Especially since she had no idea what war was like.

    • I found the images haunting my dreams for a few nights the first time I read this (I tend to have an over-active imagination). The words he chose to describe the agony this man suffered are awful, and yet perfect. I find myself fascinated by military recruiters…very few of them have ever seen real combat, and yet they are qualified to enlist men to fight and die. It is easy to be gung-ho about something you don’t know anything about on a personal level.

  2. For as long as there’ve been wars, men in power have always convinced the young and malleable that there is honor in carrying out a jingoistic agenda. It wasn’t more than two weeks ago that my boy asked me why there are wars. It’s one of the harder things to teach a child about, because no matter your age, war is never based in reason. The people that know this best are those who have seen war face to face, and recognize the lie they’ve been fed when they meet their counterparts in the opposing army–someone who also believes there’s valor in dying for your country. Funny enough, those who sit in seats of power and are usually the starters of warfare are almost always the least affected, while men like Owen and the poor soul he watched die must carry the true weight (also the weight that Tim O’Brien writes about in “The Things They Carried”.

    • I love that you pulled “The Things They Carried” into your understanding of this. I couldn’t help but be drawn there as well. Owen knows first-hand the weight carried around by a soldier – especially one who watches his friend die. I honestly don’t know how I will explain war to my children…how do you explain something that makes no sense to you to an impressionable child?

      • I tried to be straight with him. I told him that wars happen when people can’t learn to work out their disagreements. He’s also a typical young boy in that he somewhat idolized soldiers (and his mother and I both come from military families), so I explained that while the soldiers fight the wars,its the civilians that pay the price. People just like us who are trying to live our lives and stay out of the way, we’re the ones who are most affected by war.

  3. The imagery from this poem is super powerful. I loved it because I felt like I was watching it.

    We learn how just a war WWII was, but I have read a bunch of post WWII poetry and it is horrifying. Really begs the question, is there ever a good war, even if it has a great purpose.

    • The imagery is a kick to the gut, and it’s intended to be. Owen wanted you to live it through his eyes.

      The death toll alone begs the question, especially when the motivation is rarely justified. It’s an unpopular sentiment, but no war is justified. This is, of course, coming from a former Army brat.

  4. I love your analysis and I appreciate the link you posted. Hearing that poem read aloud gave me such a clearer picture of the horrors of this war, paticularly about the toxic gas. The graphic images in this poem are horrific and heartbreaking. It’s so interesting that to convey the horrors of war to his friend, Owens wrote this poem. It’s also so haunting that he wrote it and was killed in the same war a week before the cease fire.

    • I imagine that part of the power of the poem lies in the fact that Owen did not live through the war. It almost gives him Martyr status, especially at such a young age. I couldn’t help but think that he was only two years younger than me…I know I am certainly not ready to die anytime soon.

  5. Megan, this is an insightful and beautifully composed analysis. The way you sensitively and methodically explicate the poem gets to one of the major goals of literary analysis. You have taken your deep and unique understanding of the poem and used it as an opportunity to walk your reader through that perspective.

    • Thank you. This poem led me on a journey that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I really had to slow down and think my way through my response to it. I’m not sure I have ever had such a knee-jerk reaction to a poem before.

  6. The imagery in this poem is so vivid and the experience visceral. I actually re-read it a few times because it’s that exceptional.The words are so articulate and the experience almost spellbinding. I really enjoy your analysis, and think this is a great anti-war poem.

    • It is definitely not a poem that you can read without developing strong feelings toward it in one way or another. It makes me wonder how well it was received when it was published, given the gung-ho attitude toward war at the time.

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Dulce Et Decorum Est, or is it?

Image

Wilfred Owen was a soldier during WWI that died in the front lines at age 25. His haunting poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is considered to be the plea of a dead soldier. The question remains, what was Owen pleading for? The poem begins:

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.

Owen introduces the metaphors “like beggars” and “like hags” in order to illustrate the poor conditions he and his fellow soldiers are living through. They are exhausted and crippled. They are sick, and deaf from the constant gunshots. They have nothing more to look forward to than “distant rest” – this could be simply their camp for the night, but i think it eludes to the endless rest that death brings. These men are the walking dead. Owen wants his audience to feel the power of their story, and to realize that war is not fun.

In the next stanza, Owen reflects on a gas attack that he lived through. Gas was just another industrialized way to rack up the death toll, it wasn’t just about hand-to-hand combat anymore. Owen fumbled and fitted his helmet in time, but another soldier was not quite so lucky:

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.

Owen watches this man die a horrible toxic death, safe behind the green lenses of his own gas mask. He then has survivors guilt and this man haunts his dreams. He dies over and over while Owen remains helpless, listening to the sounds of him guttering – a word choice that invokes the image of the sucking sound created when water flows down the gutter. Owen uses the word drowning twice in order to reiterate the fact that this man essentially drown in his own fluids. This stanza made me feel physically ill, and was meant to show that war is not pretty.

The very last stanza is no longer about Owen’s experiences. It is a direct challenge aimed at Jessie Pope, a popular editor of patriotic poetry at the time (the poem was originally dedicated to her, so she is the audience):

If in 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.

I include the whole stanza because the beginning informs the end. Owen is very graphically offering his experiences up on a platter to Pope (“my friend”). He tells her that if she was in his shoes or had any real idea of the horrors of war, she wouldn’t so happily inspire children to enlist. He ends with a quote from an ode by Horace that translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Apparently this quote was popular during WWI, and was used to convince men that it was their duty to go to war. Owen bitterly refers to it as “the old lie.” He wants Pope to re-think her position, and to stop pushing military service on young men who want to be remembered for doing something important. Owen has seen war and feels that it is not heroic or pretty or fun. He is the ultimate authority since he lost his life in one of the most grisly wars in history.

I can’t help but wonder if this poem changed Pope’s mind? It certainly would have changed mine. I think that this poem is even more powerful when read aloud, so I will leave you with this:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qts3K3KznN4

And also a favorite quote of mine:

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” -John F. Kennedy

18 thoughts on “Dulce Et Decorum Est, or is it?

    • Thank you Diane. I had such a visceral and almost uncomfortable response to this poem, and it’s power informed the way I wrote about it. War is no little thing, and I am sometimes irritated by how trivial a thing it seems to be to some.

  1. What I really liked about this poem is that Wilfred Owen doesn’t try to sugar coat the reality of his experiences. He uses such vivid wording that it does make you sick to your stomach like when he writes: ” the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (page 235). Such a phrasing really puts a horrid image in your head, but I enjoyed the purpose of the poem; which of course was to show Pope that she had no business telling men it was their duty to join. Especially since she had no idea what war was like.

    • I found the images haunting my dreams for a few nights the first time I read this (I tend to have an over-active imagination). The words he chose to describe the agony this man suffered are awful, and yet perfect. I find myself fascinated by military recruiters…very few of them have ever seen real combat, and yet they are qualified to enlist men to fight and die. It is easy to be gung-ho about something you don’t know anything about on a personal level.

  2. For as long as there’ve been wars, men in power have always convinced the young and malleable that there is honor in carrying out a jingoistic agenda. It wasn’t more than two weeks ago that my boy asked me why there are wars. It’s one of the harder things to teach a child about, because no matter your age, war is never based in reason. The people that know this best are those who have seen war face to face, and recognize the lie they’ve been fed when they meet their counterparts in the opposing army–someone who also believes there’s valor in dying for your country. Funny enough, those who sit in seats of power and are usually the starters of warfare are almost always the least affected, while men like Owen and the poor soul he watched die must carry the true weight (also the weight that Tim O’Brien writes about in “The Things They Carried”.

    • I love that you pulled “The Things They Carried” into your understanding of this. I couldn’t help but be drawn there as well. Owen knows first-hand the weight carried around by a soldier – especially one who watches his friend die. I honestly don’t know how I will explain war to my children…how do you explain something that makes no sense to you to an impressionable child?

      • I tried to be straight with him. I told him that wars happen when people can’t learn to work out their disagreements. He’s also a typical young boy in that he somewhat idolized soldiers (and his mother and I both come from military families), so I explained that while the soldiers fight the wars,its the civilians that pay the price. People just like us who are trying to live our lives and stay out of the way, we’re the ones who are most affected by war.

  3. The imagery from this poem is super powerful. I loved it because I felt like I was watching it.

    We learn how just a war WWII was, but I have read a bunch of post WWII poetry and it is horrifying. Really begs the question, is there ever a good war, even if it has a great purpose.

    • The imagery is a kick to the gut, and it’s intended to be. Owen wanted you to live it through his eyes.

      The death toll alone begs the question, especially when the motivation is rarely justified. It’s an unpopular sentiment, but no war is justified. This is, of course, coming from a former Army brat.

  4. I love your analysis and I appreciate the link you posted. Hearing that poem read aloud gave me such a clearer picture of the horrors of this war, paticularly about the toxic gas. The graphic images in this poem are horrific and heartbreaking. It’s so interesting that to convey the horrors of war to his friend, Owens wrote this poem. It’s also so haunting that he wrote it and was killed in the same war a week before the cease fire.

    • I imagine that part of the power of the poem lies in the fact that Owen did not live through the war. It almost gives him Martyr status, especially at such a young age. I couldn’t help but think that he was only two years younger than me…I know I am certainly not ready to die anytime soon.

  5. Megan, this is an insightful and beautifully composed analysis. The way you sensitively and methodically explicate the poem gets to one of the major goals of literary analysis. You have taken your deep and unique understanding of the poem and used it as an opportunity to walk your reader through that perspective.

    • Thank you. This poem led me on a journey that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I really had to slow down and think my way through my response to it. I’m not sure I have ever had such a knee-jerk reaction to a poem before.

  6. The imagery in this poem is so vivid and the experience visceral. I actually re-read it a few times because it’s that exceptional.The words are so articulate and the experience almost spellbinding. I really enjoy your analysis, and think this is a great anti-war poem.

    • It is definitely not a poem that you can read without developing strong feelings toward it in one way or another. It makes me wonder how well it was received when it was published, given the gung-ho attitude toward war at the time.

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