What patterns seem to exist in the similes in Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Wilfred Owen’s poem titled “Dulce et Decorum Est” employs a number of similes (that is, comparisons that use the words “like” or “as”). One might argue that these similes, as the poem proceeds, become increasingly harsh and disturbing.  Consider, for instance, the following evidence:

  • In line 1, soldiers in World War I are said to be “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.” Here the simile is unpleasant, since a beggar is poor and without food and often has to carry all of his worldly possessions in a sack tossed over his shoulder. However, even an “old beggar” may still be relatively healthy.
  • In line 2, another simile is used to describe the soldiers as “coughing like hags.” Here the simile seems more intense and disturbing than the first one. To be “coughing” implies that one is sick or at least physically troubled – that one is having trouble breathing. In this sense, the second simile implies a condition even worse than the condition implied by the first simile. The first simile had implied poverty and perhaps an external physical burden; the second simile implies sickness and an internal physical ailment.
  • In line 12, the victim of a gas attack is described as

. . . flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

This simile radically intensifies the emphasis on pain and physical suffering already implied by the second simile. Coughing may be bad, but feeling as if one is being burned alive is obviously even worse. A cough can often easily be cured; severe burns are much less easy to treat and are often fatal.

  • If the phrasing of line 10 suggests a person who is on fire or who feels as if he is burning, the phrasing of line 14 is in some ways even worse: here the afflicted soldier looks as if,

. . . under a green sea, I saw him drowning . . . .

Although drowning might seem preferable to being burned, at least burning is not inevitably fatal.  Drowning, however, almost by definition, leads to death. Earlier the hags had been imagined “coughing” or having trouble breathing.  Here, however, the drowning man is losing or has already lost all capacity to breathe. In some ways, then, the suffering described so far goes from bad to worse to even worse to even worse than that.

  • In line 20, however, things become worse still.  Here the speaker, describing the dying soldier, mentions

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin . . .

The comparison of the soldier to a devil implies not just the momentary pain of being burned or drowned but eternal torment and ceaseless suffering.  Ironically, the man dying from the gas attack has not really committed any sin that directly results in this kind of punishment. The torment of a devil in hell may arguably be deserved, but the torment of the soldier seems mainly the result of a horrible accident: he was unable to put his gas mask on in time.

  • Finally, the suffering of the soldier is compared, in one last simile, to the pain caused by “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” (24). Presumably anyone condemned to hell deserves to suffer, but surely no innocent person deserves to feel the pain of “vile, incurable sores.”

As the poem develops, then, each new simile adds a new level of intensity to the pain the poem depicts.


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