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Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the great anti-war poems. Set in World War I, the first major war in which poison gas was used, it tells a brief story of a soldier’s experience with the horror of war. As Owen narrates his experience, he also reflects on what he calls “the old Lie.” Exposing this lie is his central concern in the poem.
To narrate is to tell a story. As Owen narrates, he uses grotesquely horrifying imagery to lead the reader to his ironic message that ends the poem:
. . . the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
The soldier Owen is referring to has ingested poison gas and will die an agonizing death. The reader cannot help but empathize with him, but Owen has not yet revealed his ultimate message. He is trying to communicate more than just the idea that “war is hell.” His concern is with the way people are socialized and brainwashed by society, specifically how they are taught to view war.
Notice that as part of this description, the poet addresses the reader directly with, “If you could hear.” At this point Owen wants the reader to reflect on what he has read, and he is building up to his final line:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Until we come to the Latin phrase at the end, we do not know Owen’s ultimate purpose, which is to direct the reader to reflect on the appropriateness of the saying, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”
Based on the description that Owen provided in the narrative part of the poem, it is certainly not sweet to die such a death. If he had only included the narration, the reader might not have connected it to the idea of socialization. If he had only included the reflection, the reader would not have gained an appreciation for just how horrible the effects of war are. It required both the narration and the reflection to deliver his message.
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