What literary techniques are used by the poet in "Dulce et Decorum Est" to highlight the horrors of war?

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winnmc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Dulce Et Decorum Est” is a perfect example of poetry’s ability to reflect the changing worldview of an entire generation after World War I.  In fact, there was a popular saying in Britain after the war which one of my English professors often referred to during class:  “We went to war with Rupert Brooke, and came back with Siegfried Sassoon.  Like Sasson, Wilfred Owen’s poetry is filled with the shattered hopes and dreams of a nation after the first World War.   

Throughout “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Owen uses several literary techniques to convey his anger and disillusionment brought on by the horror he witnessed on the battlefield.  The first, and most obvious, literary device is his use of imagery and metaphors.  The soldiers are compared to bent over beggars and hags stumbling through a nightmarish scene of “sludge…misty panes and thick green light.”  In contrast to the ironic title, Owens depicts the demise of soldiers not as ‘glorious’ but rather “obscene as cancer” and full of “writhing, gargling, and choking.”   

Owens also employs alliteration.  Some notable examples of this are found in lines 17 through 19 with the repetitive “s” sound and “w” sounds.

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,  

Most importantly, however, is Owen’s use of biting sarcasm which accentuates his verbal irony found in the title and final two lines of the poem.  Translated, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” means “how sweet and right it is to die for your country.” The reader cannot miss his anger and bitterness directed towards those who have promised glory to “ardent children” but delivered nothing but death and heartache.  While many soldiers died, those who survived were left with disfigured bodies, disillusioned dreams, distrust of their nation, and a never-ending nightmare.