In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” war is portrayed as a hellish experience devoid of traditional notions of glory and honor. Owen, himself a soldier on the Western Front when he was writing, knew the nightmares of the trenches first-hand and sought to reveal the truth of the war through his poetry.
Owen’s first-person poem is divided into three stanzas. The first two stanzas relay the journey of a small group of soldiers returning to the rear after a lengthy stint on the front lines. They are exhausted and described as “old beggars under sacks.” This contrasts with the polished, orderly stereotype of the military that many in England held. This procession is no pompous military parade, it is a march of broken men “drunk with fatigue.”
Suddenly, chemical gas shells fall behind them, and an “ecstasy of fumbling” ensues as each soldier struggles to fit their gas-masks to their faces. Most are successful, but one is not. The speaker of the poem watches the poor man “guttering, choking, drowning” and dying through the fogged panes of his gas mask.
The final stanza is worth including in its entirety because it pointedly addresses an older generation of English citizens who sought to glorify the sacrifices of the conflict:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch 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,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
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.
Owen employs sensory imagery to great effect in the description of this soldier’s slow, agonizing death. It is interesting to note that Owen chooses to describe the death of a single soldier rather than a group or unit. This personalizes the experience of war for the reader and forces the war-supporters at home to face the individual horrors faced by the soldiers they sent to the front. This decision also avoided the common lionization of units who suffered mass casualties in battle as heroes, a tactic used by war-supporters that angered Owen.
For Owen, there is no glory in war: just mud, agony, blood and death. The poet believes that the worst offenders in the war were those safe in England parroting, the “old Lie” that it is honorable to die for your country. In Owen’s mind, the war was futile; his friends and comrades were dying for a falsehood. Through his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen challenges his middle-aged English readers to acknowledge the sheer horror of the war their children were fighting.
The historical power of this poem is punctuated by the tragedy of the poet’s death. Owen was killed on the Western Front a mere week before the 1918 Armistice was signed. Owen’s mother received the telegram notifying her of her son’s death as church-bells rang to celebrate the ceasefire. Perhaps the fact that “Dulce et Decorum Est” is arguably the most famous poem to rise from the mud of the First World War shows that Wilfred Owen accomplished his goal of forcing people to confront the awful consequences of violence. I hope this helps!