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Wilfred Owen once wrote of his most famous poems that “"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." If we take Owen at his word and regard the “pity of War” as his crucial theme, how does he use language to emphasize that theme in “Dulce et Decorum Est”? Consider the following examples:
- Line 1 evokes pity by stressing (1) the physical suffering of the soldiers and by comparing them not simply to (2) beggars but to (3) old beggars. In three different ways, then, this line tries to arouse our pity.
- Line 2 evokes pity by emphasizing three further, different kinds of physical suffering (in the legs, in the lungs, and in the legs and feet combined).
- Lines 5-6 imply even further reasons that we should feel pity. Each time we think the condition of the men is as pitiful as it could be, Owen ratchets up the sense of suffering:
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind . . .
- Line 7 encourages us to pity yet another kind of physical suffering (temporary deafness). So far, three of the five senses (touch, sight, and hearing) have been mentioned; taste will be mentioned later, in lines 23-24. Ironically, when an emphasis on the sense of smell enters the poem in lines 9-10, it is not in order to stress merely unpleasant or even nauseating odors but rather the kinds of smell that can kill:
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time . . .
- Just when one thinks that the sense of pity was reached the highest pitch possible, however, the speaker gives us one of the most memorable images of the entire work as the speaker and we watch a man “drowning” as if “under a green sea” as he chokes on the poison gas (13-14).
- Having emphasized all kinds of physical suffering in the first fourteen lines of the poem (in a kind of parody of a sonnet), the speaker now evokes a different kind of pity as he describes, in lines 15-16, his own psychological suffering as he recalls, in his dreams, how he continually remembers the dying man plunging toward him.
In the poem’s final lines, the speaker says that if only the readers of the poem could themselves suffer from the kinds of “smothering dreams” (17) he has experienced, they would be less likely to urge young men to go off to war with naïve dreams of patriotic glory. In a sense, however, the purpose of the poem has been precisely to make us, as readers, suffer the kinds of “smothering dreams” the speaker experiences. In other words, if the poem has been at all successful (and many readers consider it one of the most unforgettable war poems ever written), we can never put out of our minds the images Owen paints for us here. The poem haunts us as the original experiences haunt the speaker. By the end of the poem, we should be feeling enormous pity for the speaker and for all the soldiers he describes.
Something extra: Owen's poem invites attention from what has sometimes been called "ethical criticism," an approach to literature associated with the theorist Wayne Booth. As the quoted phrase implies, this is an approach to literature that encourages us to examine it for its moral implications. It would be hard to think of a poem that better exemplifies the morality of literature than Owen's text. Yet the poem is not merely moralistic: it does not provide trite, pat lessons. It makes us feel pity deeply.
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