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:
And also a favorite quote of mine:
“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” -John F. Kennedy