How is irony shown in Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?
I understand what irony is, but I can't find what is so ironic about this title. I also know the title means "It is sweet and honorable to die for your country".
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Irony is present in many of the literary works that came out of the first World War, and that's probably not too surprising, given the stark contrast between what people were told about the war, and how they actually experienced it. Irony is a device that depends on contrast. We call it dramatic irony, for example, when the audience knows something that one of the characters doesn't. Then when that character speaks or acts in ignorance, the audience sees the situation as ironic. Or, a character may engage in verbal irony by saying one thing, while meaning something quite different.
Wilfred Owen's poem is ironic in more than one sense. As a poetic statement made at a specific moment in history, it speaks what so many people felt as the war dragged on: that they had been misled, lied to, that the war was being described in one way, but in reality it was something very different indeed. But irony is also crucial to the way "Dulce et Decorum Est" is written. Everything in the poem builds toward the last two lines. And those lines are different than anything else in the poem: they're in Latin, obviously. And for readers who know what they mean, and even know that they were written by Horace, one of the great classical authors, they have an aura of tradition, of authority. Owen's purpose, of course, is to undercut that authority, to make the lines sound hollow, ironic. He does that very explicitly by calling the lines a lie. But that explicit statement that we should read the Latin line ironically only reinforces what he has already accomplished. The elevated tone of the last lines, their "decorum," as language, contrasts violently with the language of the rest of the poem. Owen's diction is anything but elevated, drawing instead on words like ugly, guttering, writhing, gargling, obscene cancer, froth-corrupted lungs, bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues. After listening to such language, the dignified Latin can hardly sound anything other than shockingly ironic and dishonest. In addition to his overarching situational irony, Owen has used verbal irony to powerful effect.
Remember that irony refers in general to any difference between appearance and reality. In the First World War, the brutality of what occurred in the trenches and during the war generally severely questioned notions of war and patriotism back home. Owen was one of a few poets who showed war to be a dehumanising, horrific experience that made a mockery of civilization. The irony therefore lies in his choice of title and how it compares to the content of the poem. The title, which you have translated correctly, is taken from an Ode by Horace and has been used for centuries as a morale builder - and as an epitaph, or gravestone inscription - for soldiers. Here the motto is given a bitter, savage twist, as the soldier-poet cannot see how the sentiment it expresses matches the reality he has experienced.
You might want to explore this further by analysing the images that Owen uses to describe the soldiers who are dehumanised. Images such as "like old beggars under sacks" and "knock-kneed, coughing like hags" stand in sharp contrast to the trite patriotic saying of the title. There is nothing "brave" or "honourable" in such warfare, Owen suggests.
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