Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1666 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Dulce et Decorum Est Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!