How is the imagery used to present the conflict in the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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vanertc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Wilfred Owen most likely experienced the very conflicts he depicts in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” during his battlefront experiences in the British Army during WWI. There is conflict in every line, but several stand out vividly as Owen tells the story of a platoon of soldiers so “drunk with fatigue” that they are deaf to “the haunting flares” and “hoots / of gas shells dropping softly behind” them as they leave the battlefield for the day.  

Although the battle itself is behind them, mentally and physically they still carry the conflict of it, as they are “[b]ent double, like old beggars under sacks…[a]ll..lame, all blind.”  These young men are so broken and exhausted that they are physically reduced to “old beggars.”  Even the ground seems to battle them, the mud sucking at their boots and slowing their progress as they swear their way “through sludge.”

Ironically, the battle they managed to survive has made them too exhausted to react quickly enough to a gas shell that makes it within range.  There is conflict even with their equipment as they struggle to put on “the clumsy helmets” with an “ecstasy of fumbling.”  The image Owen gives of the one soldier not quick enough is horrific.  We see him “flound’ring like a man in fire...guttering, choking” on “the blood / ...gargling from froth-corrupted lungs.” The men are forced to witness their friend’s slow, torturous death by gas through “the misty panes and thick green light” of their own masks, unable to help him. Our narrator (whom we might imagine is Owen himself) clearly battles survivor’s guilt as he paces behind the wagon carrying the dying man and has to “watch the white eyes writhing in his face.” Further conflict comes in the form of haunting guilt as the narrator later remembers this scene in his nightmares, watching as the poor dying soldier “plunges” at him, seeking help.

Ultimately, though, the overriding conflict Owen seems to have is with the attitude of those who promote war as a grand adventure in order to recruit new soldiers to replace the dead.  To Owen, war is “like a devil’s sick of sin.” It is so corrupt that even the Devil is sick of it.  Owen condemns those who spread “[t]he old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (it is sweet and right to die for our country). Naive young men are lured to their horrible deaths by this lie, and those who propagate it are like “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.”  Owen did his best to battle against this lie with various poems depicting the dark truths about war, including this one, written in October, 1917. For him, however, the conflict ended on November 4, 1918, when he was killed in battle at age 25.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Owen uses brutal, ghastly imagery to present a stark contrast between the realities of war as lived by the people who fought it and the politicians and others back home who assert that war is glorious and ennobling. To this end, Owen depicts a scene in which a young man finds himself the victim of a gas attack. Before the attack, the soldiers are "like old beggars," "coughing like hags" as they curse their way through the "sludge." Some, having lost their boots, "limp on, blood-shod." These poor men, "drunk with fatigue," have their misery interrupted by an even greater nightmare—a mustard gas attack. In the struggle to put on their masks before they are enveloped by the gas, one poor man is unable to get his secured in time. Owen uses terrifying and grotesque imagery to describe the man's horrible death. He immediately begins "guttering, choking, drowning," with his eyes bulging horribly. The men are left to watch him die, and Owen uses the horrible scene, which ends with the man coughing up blood that Owen describes as "obscene as cancer" to show that war is horrible, nothing like the glorious endeavor that many people imagine. The use of this shocking, brutal, even grotesque imagery portrays war as Owen, who served and died in the trenches during World War I, experienced it.