The major theme of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is associated with its Latin title, which is taken from a work by the poet Horace (658 b.c.). The full phrase (which Owen uses to close his poem) is dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which can be loosely translated, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen consciously works to undermine this noble statement of patriotism by showing the ignominy of death in modern war.
The reader who has some knowledge of classical literature, especially epic poetry and the heroic odes which celebrate great warriors who fall in battle while serving their nation, will immediately see Owen’s strategy. The men he describes in this war are anything but noble. Instead of confronting their foes in single combat, the soldiers in Owen’s poem are retreating from the front lines. They are tired, both physically and psychologically. They are almost deaf to the sounds of the falling gas bombs that could take their lives at any moment.
Unlike the heroes of earlier wars, these soldiers do not face death at the hands of a recognizable enemy who bests them with sword or spear. Instead, death comes from afar; worse still, it comes impersonally in the form of an insidious poison that snuffs out life in a brief instant of agony (which Owen contrasts subtly with the “ecstasy of fumbling” [line 9] that occurs when the men try to put on their masks). These soldiers utter no death-bed speeches, as did their classical counterparts whom Horace and earlier poets celebrated. Instead, the only sounds emitted by those under gas attack are incoherent yells and—after death—a “gargling” from “froth-corrupted lungs” that occurs as the corpse of the soldier too slow to put on his mask in time is carted off to burial.
Owen served as a lieutenant in the British Army during World War I; ironically, he was killed shortly before the armistice was signed. Having grown up in England at the end of the nineteenth century, Owen would have come to the war imbued with a sense of patriotism, as the British had gone to great lengths to convince themselves that they were engaging in a noble conflict to save humankind. The graphic realities of the battlefield did not match the glorious descriptions of war prevalent in the literature Owen and his educated officer comrades had read. There was no glory in dying from gas poisoning. What Owen seems to have realized is that death by gassing was a metaphor for all death in modern warfare; the notion of a glorious death was simply a lie. “Dulce et Decorum Est” graphically depicts a central irony of death on the modern battlefield: No matter how noble the cause may be, the individual soldier can expect nothing but misery in combat and an ignominious end should he be unfortunate enough to become a casualty.