Dulce et Decorum Est Questions and Answers
by Wilfred Owen

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What did Wilfred Owen mean when he said, "Man marched asleep" in "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

When Wilfrid Owen said, "Men marched asleep," he was using an oxymoron to denote the extreme fatigue that the soldiers were suffering. He was also suggesting that these soldiers have become numb to the horrors of war.

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Colin Cavendish-Jones, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," the short sentence "Men marched asleep" at the beginning of the fifth line marks an abrupt transition from the first to the third person. It is as though Owen is drawing back from the particular to the general, giving a wider picture of the horror of war. When he does so, the first remark he makes is that men were marching, usually an active and dynamic activity, while they appeared to be asleep, an oxymoron which emphasizes the paradoxical nature of war.

George Orwell noted in "The Lion and the Unicorn" that Hitler referred to the Germans as "a sleep-walking people," adding that the herd instinct this suggests could equally be applied to the English. The idea of marching asleep suggests this automatic collective action without thought or motive. In this sense, it is not an oxymoron to say that the men march asleep, since the lack of thought and purpose is as apparent in the sleep as in the marching. However, the image also suggests that the men are exhausted. Owen goes on to say that many of the soldiers had lost their boots and only continued, in a horrifying phrase, "blood-shod." The image of the men being asleep adds to the unreality of the scene, as though such things could only happen in a nightmare. It also provides a way of understanding how oblivious and desensitized they have become to the horror that surrounds them.

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The men are trudging towards their "distant rest" despite the fact that they're dog-tired, exhausted both mentally and physically, and barely able to stand. In this particular extract, as elsewhere in the poem, Owen is drawing our attention to the dehumanizing effects of war.

The daily grind of war has taken so much out of these men that they're practically asleep, dead to the world. This could be interpreted literally as well as physically. Not only are they physically exhausted, they're no longer aware of the purpose of the war and why they're even fighting in it. They ask themselves why they're risking their lives each and every day in worsening conditions.

It's got to the stage where soldiers are more like robots than men, trudging through the blood-stained mud of the trenches without a moment's thought. In this sense they are asleep, not really part of this world but of a hideous fantasy world full of horrific nightmares. Indeed, all that the men can see around them are the kind of thing you'd expect to see in bad dreams. And so long as they remain stuck on the front line of this increasingly bloody, pointless conflict, they'll continue to inhabit this seemingly never-ending world of nightmares.

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As the previous educator has demonstrated, the phrase, “Men marched asleep,” alludes to the idea that the soldiers were extremely tired from fighting. If we look at the phrase from a critical perspective, we see that Owen is using an oxymoron to convey this idea. For instance, the words “marched” and “asleep” actually contradict each other: you can’t physically get up and walk when you’re not awake. This oxymoron suggests that these men aren’t just tired, they are at the point of complete exhaustion, and Owen is saying that you would have to see it for yourself to truly believe it.

There is something else worth noting about this phrase. If you look at its position in the text, you will notice that it occurs in the middle of a gas attack. This is not a quiet or peaceful scene. There is the noise of flares, for example, and the sound of many pairs of boots marching across the battlefield. The idea that you could sleep through this noise, or barely react to it, is Owen’s way of making another point about the war. Specifically, these men have suffered so much that they have become numb and desensitized to it. They no longer react to the slightest sound because it has become their new normal. War has had a dramatic impact on who they are and how they behave.

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There are two meanings to the line, “Men marched asleep.” In the poem.  The first one is more of a literal interpretation of the line.  The men have been in battle a long time.  They are tired but still marching even though they have “lost their boots” and are limping on bloody feet.  Owen uses verbs and phrases such as “trudging” and “drunk with fatigue” to get across the images that the soldiers are basically just dead men walking.   They move out of duty and necessity, as if asleep with no conscious idea of what they are doing.

The other meaning to the line can be analyzed by understanding the title of the poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”.  Translated, the title means, “It is sweet and right.”  At the end of the poem, Owen writes, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which means, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”   This poem is an example of an anti-war poem and written about WWI about a horrific war of trench warfare with new weapons like mustard gas, tanks, and machine guns.  Many soldiers sign up to go to war because of patriotic feelings for their country.  It is a great honor to fight for your country.  Unfortunately, the realities of war do not match the view of what war is really like.  The men are “asleep” to the conditions and situations of war; they don’t understand the loss and destruction they face.  They are “asleep” and ignorant of the horrors they will experience when they sign up to be soldiers.

It is during WWI that the term “shell shock” was coined.  Today it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and really chronicles the psychological destruction of war that Owen describes in the poem.

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