Wilfred Owen had considerable first-hand experience of the horrors of gas warfare during World War I, and his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is an attempt to depict the helplessness of men caught in a gas attack. Writing in four irregular verse paragraphs, Owen describes the general condition of men involved in the war, sketches briefly the shock of a gas attack, then dwells on the aftermath of this tragic event on someone who lives through it.
Although it is often unwise to associate the narrator of a poem with its author, it is quite likely that in “Dulce et Decorum Est” Owen is speaking in his own voice. His method of direct address to the reader makes his appeal in the final lines especially compelling.
Owen opens the poem with a description of a group of demoralized soldiers retreating from the front lines of the battlefield. The men are clearly fatigued (“Men marched asleep,” the narrator observes), so worn down that they are “deaf even to the hoots/ Of gas-shells dropping softly behind” (lines 78). Then, suddenly, someone shouts “Gas! GAS!” (line 9), and the men go into an “ecstasy of fumbling” (line 9) to put on masks before the deadly poison can take their lives. All but one are successful; the narrator looks out from behind the glass of his protective mask into the “green sea” (line 14) that the gas has created around him and his comrades, watching helplessly as one of his fellow soldiers dies in agony.
The image of that dying soldier is one that can never leave the narrator. As readers learn in the two lines set off from the rest of the text, the sight of that dying comrade haunts the narrator’s dreams, as the soldier “plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (line 16).
That memory prompts the narrator to offer in the final verse paragraph some bitter advice to readers about the nature of warfare and the outcome of blind patriotism. In the last twelve lines of the poem, Owen describes his experience of walking behind the wagon in which the dead man has been placed, seeing the corpse frozen in the twisted agony of its death throes. That sight, he says, would prevent any man from adopting glibly the notion that dying for one’s country is somehow noble.