soldier crawling on hands and knees through a trench under a cloud of poisonous gas with dead soldiers in the foreground and background

Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen

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From the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, please explain the lines "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling.... Pro patria mori." 

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This poem describes what it was like to fight in World War I, known at that time as the Great War. The first stanza describes the soldiers retreating from a battle area and trudging toward their camp, their "distant rest." As they are marching, they get hit with poison gas from the German enemy. "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!" is what the soldiers and their officers call out to each other. They need to put their gas masks on quickly to keep from succumbing to the poison. "An ecstasy of fumbling" means that they hurriedly got their masks out of wherever they kept them and attached them to their faces "just in time," in other words, in time to not inhale the chlorine gas. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers did not get his helmet on in time. That is the "someone" of line 11. He begins to stumble and flounder because he is unable to breathe or see.

Lines 11 and 12 describe the man who didn't get his gas mask on.

Lines 13 and 14 describe the men who did get theirs on looking at the struggling man. They are looking out through "misty panes." The gas masks had two celluloid (a type of plastic) eye circles through which the men had to look. The "thick green light" and "green sea" refer to the color of the chlorine gas that is now in the air. The men see the other man "drowning." He is asphyxiated; he cannot breathe because chlorine instead of oxygen has gotten into his lungs.

Lines 15 and 16 describe the nightmares the narrator of the poem has later about the man who inhaled the chlorine.

In lines 17 - 28 the speaker addresses someone called "you" and "my friend." The person the narrator speaks to is Jessie Pope, another poet. Jessie Pope was one of several poets who wrote poetry aimed at recruiting young men to go to war. The narrator here says that if Jessie Pope had seen this horror happen on the battlefield and had had nightmares about it as he had, she would stop writing the poems that entice young men to enlist by telling them how much "fun" they will have in the army. The narrator says that Pope has been telling them "the old Lie" that it is sweet and honorable to die for one's country. That is the meaning of the Latin saying quoted at the end of the poem.

At the link below you can read one of Jessie Pope's most famous poems, "The Call." This will show you how she glamorized war. Owen was not against men signing up to fight for their country. He was himself a soldier. In fact, he died in battle a week before the end of the war. What Owen was saying through this poem is that men should go to war with their eyes open to the difficulties and the horrors they will face there. Through this poem and others, Owen helped make sure that was the case. 

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