What are the tone, techniques, and themes of 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 work titled “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the most powerful anti-war poems ever written. No brief discussion could ever do justice to such a rich poem, but here are some aspects of its themes, techniques, and tone that make it particularly effective:

  • It begins by plunging in medias res (into the midst of things), with no introduction or explanation. Suddenly we find ourselves – along with the speaker – in the midst of horrific wartime action. We see what he sees.
  • The speaker, until the end of the poem, doesn’t comment on what he sees; he merely reports it in all its gory, disgusting vividness.  Only after we have been forced to see things through his eyes does he offer any commentary about war.
  • The poem makes especially effective use not only of striking imagery but also of powerful sound effects, as in line 2: “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” Here the alliteration (emphasis on repeated consonant sounds) is particularly powerful.
  • The syntax of the poem is very effectively constructed.  Thus, the long sentence that consumes the first four lines overwhelms us by its sheer length, but then that sentence is immediately followed by one that is extremely abrupt: “Men marched asleep” (5).
  • The details of the phrasing lend great credibility to the poem. The speaker seems to know about the things he describes from first-hand experience. The use of arcane language, such as the reference to “outstripped Five-Nines” (8), makes the speaker seem knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty details of war.
  • The sudden shift to line 9 catches readers off guard, just as the gas attack catches the soldiers off-guard:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time (9-10)

  • Another abrupt shift – from line 10 to line 11 – also adds to the impact of the poem. Just when we think that all the men have succeeded in putting on their gas masks, we discover that one man failed to do so:

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime (11-12)

  • In some places the phrasing of the poem becomes almost surreal, so that we now see things in ways we could never have imagined:

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. (13-14)

  • Owen shows himself a master of poetic rhythm. In line 23, for example, notice how he manages to stress key words or phrases especially strongly: “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light.” Notice, too, how in this line he uses assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) just as effectively as he elsewhere uses alliteration. Thus, the short “I” sound is heard in “Dim,” in “misty,” and in “thick.”
  • Owen gives added impact to lines 15-16 by making them their own short, separate stanza:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Even this discussion of only the first half of the poem suggests the combination of strengths that makes the whole poem so utterly unforgettable. Few other poems of the twentieth century are likely to be as well remembered, or by so many, as this one.

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