In "Dulce et Decorum Est," what does the phrase "Haunting flares" contribute to the poem?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The "haunting flares" you refer to in your question comes in the first stanza of this excellent war time poem and it is part of the overall description that helps create a slightly surreal theme of the horrors of war and the impact of war on the soldiers involved. Whenever you are trying to work out the meaning or the contribution of such phrases or lines, it is always important to look at them in context to see if that can help in your understanding of them. Let us do that now:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Note how the overall picture is one of severe exhaustion and illness. The "haunting flares" in this picture, especially through the use of the word "haunting," seem to add a definite flavour of the other-wordly, almost making the scene ghost-like as the soldiers, in their crippled, exhausted state, try to focus on heading towards the "distant rest" that awaits them.

favoritethings's profile pic

favoritethings | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Early in the poem, the poet works to achieve a particular mood, and the phrase "haunting flares" contributes to this.  To begin the poem, the narrator states,

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. (lines 1-4)

These soldiers are marching, laden with gear and so exhausted that they are hunched over, walking like old women.  They march through mud and muck, with farther to go until they are finally out of immediate danger and can actually stop to rest.  The mood is bleak, dismal; these are young men of 18, 19, 20 years old, and yet they can only "trudge" with knees knocking, gagging and hacking like a sick old woman.  The flares, then, are described as "haunting," but what typically haunts?  Ghosts, sad memories: nothing bright or good or hopeful.  The flares are haunting for the men, perhaps because  they remind them that they will face the same fate tomorrow.  The realization that they must march, pressing forward no matter what, for yet another day and another and another would surely be haunting.  The word choice of "haunting" contributes to the bleak mood as well as gives us a glimpse into the mind of a soldier in this position.  The "haunting flares" seem to symbolize the haunting knowledge that this dismal reality will be the soldiers' own for a long time.

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