Wilfred Owen set his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” during World War I on the western front in France. His purpose—to protest against the mentality that perpetuates war—is unmistakable, but what sets the work apart from much other antiwar literature is the effectiveness of his tightly controlled depiction of war.
The first fourteen of the poem’s twenty-eight lines comprise a sonnet that vividly describes a single terrible moment. The last twelve address the reader directly, explaining the significance or moral of the incident. The speaker is among a company of exhausted men who after a stint at the front are marching unsteadily toward the rear when they are suddenly overtaken by poison gas. After they hastily pull on their gas masks, the speaker sees through the misty lenses that one of them, somehow maskless, is staggering helplessly toward him. He watches the man succumb to the gas, desperately groping the air between them as he drops to the ground, like someone drowning. The third stanza shifts the context to the speaker’s dreams. In a single couplet, the speaker declares that in all his dreams he sees that soldier plunging toward him. In the final stanza, he turns to the readers, telling them that if they, too, could have experienced such dreams and watched the soldier dying on the wagon into which the soldiers flung him, they would never repeat to their children “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.”
Throughout the war, this Latin phrase—a quotation from the Roman poet Horace (Odes III. 2.13, 23 and 13 b.c.e.)—was frequently used in inspirational poems and essays. In a letter to his mother, Owen provides the translation, “It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country,” and he expostulates sarcastically, “Sweet! And decorous!”
Owen is often judged to be the most remarkable of the group of “war poets” who emerged during World War I. Although “Dulce et Decorum Est” is seldom considered to be technically Owen’s finest poem, it is nevertheless among his most famous because it captures so compellingly not only the tribulations of the soldiers who fought in the war but also their belief that the patriotic rhetoric on the home front and the government’s refusal to negotiate a peace were more to blame for their suffering than the opposing soldiers. Owen, who was an officer with the Manchester Regiment, planned to publish “Dulce et Decorum Est” in a volume that was to present the truth about the war, which he knew to be utterly at odds with the belligerent cant that appeared daily in newspapers and in magazines in England.
Two drafts of the poem carry the dedication “To Jessie Pope etc” (two other drafts simply say “To a certain Poetess”), suggesting that Owen had originally specifically targeted such individuals as Jessie Pope, whose collection of children’s verses, Simple Rhymes for Stirring Times (1916), was intended to kindle enthusiasm for the war.
In the end, Owen removed the sarcastic dedication, perhaps to make clear that he wished to address a much broader readership. Most people in England greeted the outbreak of war in August, 1914, with enthusiasm. Wars of recent memory were limited, distant affairs; the people expected adventure and heroism from a contained conflict that would be over by Christmas. Instead, after the second month of the war, when Germany’s march on Paris was halted at the Marne, the opposing armies dug themselves into trenches facing each other across a narrow strip known as No Man’s Land, a line that stretched across Belgium and France. In part because of the efficiency of machine guns and because tanks were not deployed until near the end of the war, neither side was able to dislodge the other. Millions of men lost their lives in costly and fruitless attempts to break the stalemate; in just one day, July 1, 1916, the great offensive at the River Somme took the lives of sixty thousand men. Rats, lice, and the sight of exposed corpses were inescapable conditions of trench warfare. By the time the war ended, all those who experienced the horrors of trench warfare were forced to abandon their belief in the superiority of European civilization and the idea of European progress.
In the opening lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen vividly portrays the price of trench warfare, the exhaustion of soldiers who become like old women, “hags,” coughing, lame, blind, and deaf. The poet speaks for these individuals who, though they no longer function in tidy military unison, are joined by their shared experience of a nightmare that seems just at the point of being over when the new assault arrives. The deadly gases (at first chlorine, later phosgene and mustard gas) that remain a hallmark of World War I were first used on a large scale on the Western Front. Although soldiers were equipped with respirator masks, more than one million men died from such attacks. The gas, whose effects Owen describes in the second stanza, is the odorless and colorless mustard gas frequently used after July, 1917. Detectable only by its sting, it gave its victims only seconds to protect themselves and caused severe, often fatal, burns to exposed skin and lungs. Owen also mentions other miseries of the “Great War,” such as the unusually heavy rainfalls that turned the fighting zone into a bog in which the men suffered crippling foot ailments and sometimes even drowned.
The poem also expresses “the pity of war,” the theme Owen also articulated in the short preface he drafted for the intended collection. English poetry, he explains, is “not yet fit to speak” of heroes, but speaking the truth of war may act as a warning to the next generation. Owen uses the word “pity” in a special sense, one that encompasses a profound fellow feeling for all those who suffer; ultimately, that includes everyone. Hence, his protest against war extends to become a protest against all inhumanity. The ability of Owen’s poems to transcend the particular circumstances of their creation was a quality some of his early critics, including the poet Yeats, failed to see. “Dulce et Decorum Est” accomplishes this as effectively as anything Owen wrote, for the focus of its protest is not the pain suffered by a few men but rather the transhistorical “Lie.” The horrible death of the gassed soldier exposes the fallacy behind the oft-repeated, high-sounding Latin epigram: The poem’s protest is against an abuse of language.
Owen drafted the poem in August, 1917, at the age of twenty-four, while he was convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. He finished it about one year later, perhaps shortly before his death. The event described in the poem is almost certainly based on actual experience, as Owen reported such “smothering” dreams to his doctor. Recovering from concussion, trench fever, and “shell shock” or “neurasthenia” (terms often used as euphemisms for exhaustion), Owen’s stay at Craiglockhart was crucial in his poetic development, in part because he became acquainted with the more experienced soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon and, even more important, because it gave him a chance to work steadily during a period when his sense of poetic purpose was most urgent.
Owen was deeply concerned about the technical problems involved in the expression of his passionate convictions. Some of his later poems use striking methods such as half rhyme, but in this poem, too, Owen’s technical mastery is impressive. The first stanza employs heavy, single-syllable rhymes throughout; to convey exhaustion, Owen breaks up the rhythm, which composes itself in the third line. After several comparatively regular lines, a dramatic shift occurs with the fragmentary syntax of the first lines of the stanza about the gas. The four repeating “um” sounds of those line in the words “fumbling,” “clumsy,” “someone,” “stumbling” produce interior rhymes that create a sudden, panicked sense of double time. After the ellipsis, an eerie, dreamlike calm sets in as the poet coolly, objectively describes the man drowning “as in a green sea.” The couplet literally rehearses the moment as do the dreams, and in place of a rhyme it repeats the falling cadence of “drowning” with extraordinary effect, as though poetry itself must stumble and fall at this juncture. The final stanza exploits the steady, relentless rhythm of iambic pentameter for the purpose of “accumulatio,” heaping up declarations in couplets that each describe more of what could be seen. “My friend” announces a last turn: a direct accusation against the time-honored, respectable, capitalized “Lie.” The extra foot in line 25 shatters the iambic pentameter and produces particularly heavy stresses on the two long syllables of “old Lie,” enhancing the resonance of the foreshortened half-line that ends the poem.
In a late revision, Owen substituted lines 23 and 24 (“Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—”) for two lines that introduced a note of eroticism that might have distracted attention from Owen’s main purpose (“And think how, once, his head was like a bud,/ Fresh as a country rose, and keen, and young,—”) The new lines recall images from Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320), and their guttural sounds enhance the impression of outrage.
After a year of convalescence, Owen returned to the front in August, 1918. In October, he received the Military Cross, and on November 4, 1918, just one week before the Armistice, he was gunned down on the Sambre Canal. Owen published only five poems during his lifetime, and “Dulce et Decorum Est” was first published posthumously in Poems by Wilfred Owen (1920), the eleventh poem in a volume of only twenty-three. His reputation grew rapidly after the publication of Edmund Blunden’s 1931 edition of his poems, which included a lengthy memoir. Although the C. Day Lewis edition of Owen’s poems is now considered standard, “Dulce et Decorum Est” is often reprinted in versions that differ significantly. In particular, some editors follow Blunden in preferring a manuscript variant of line 8, “Of gas shells dropping softly behind.”