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The poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen was written by the poet when he was hospitalized with a stress disorder from fighting in World War I in 1917. Owen was anti-war; consequently, his poetry was intended to emphasize the horrors of war for the soldiers. Sadly, in 1918, Owen died one week before the end of the war from gunfire wounds.
The title of the poem is a Latin phrase used sardonically by the poet. The phrase was used during the war, particularly in England. It suggests that the war was to be glorified because the meaning of the phrase is “It is sweet and right.” In other words, it is a great honor to fight and die for a person’s country.
Summary of stanzas
1st stanza: The soldiers are physically and mentally exhausted. Using a simile the soldiers are compared to beggars carrying their bags. Cursing their plight, the soldiers are sick and crippled. The battle is about to end for the day, so the soldiers turn and begin to slog through the mud walking back to the trenches. Many of the men walked sleeping. Some of the soldiers had lost their boots; however, they hobbled on with bloody feet. Everyone was crippled; without sight; exhausted; and deaf to the endless bombs that were dropped behind them.
2nd stanza: The narrator is a part of the experience. He too is a soldier. During World War I, the Germans began chemical warfare by dropping mustard gas on their enemies. . It was deadly unless the soldier had a gas mask and was able to get it on his face immediately. The gas is detected. Someone tells them to get their masks on…the soldier fumbles around fitting the mask on just before the gas gets to him. Unfortunately, someone does not get his face covered inhales the gas. His body is immediately devastated by the gas. He begins to yell, stumble, struggle as if he is on fire…the narrator can see the man through the fog and thick green light… The narrator as though he were under green water could see the man unable to breathe. The gas causes blisters which closes the airway when it is inhaled. The man felt as though he were drowning in his own blood.
3rd stanza: The narrator tells the reader that this is a flashback to a time during the war. He relives this scene in his dreams or nightmares. He feels helpless to give aid to the man who in his dream runs toward the narrator trying to talk, choking, and strangling.
4th stanza: In his dream, he sees again the wagon that the man’s body was thrown into. He sees his face, and his eyes rolled back in his head. His blood gurgled from his failed lungs. His lungs might have been cancerous…the body becomes a mass of blisters and horrid sores. Here is what the poem has been building toward:
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
Speaking directly to the reader and making the point of the poem, the narrator suggests that if the people could see these things, they might not speak to their children with such enthusiasm about the wonders of war. In the end, the poet says: Do not tell your children the old lie---How sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country. Owen’s disdain for the war and the horrors that the soldiers experienced becomes evident throughout his poetry.
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