Discuss the literary devices, specifically metaphors, used in "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Wilfred Owen, a British war poet, wrote about World War I.  His poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” was written in 1917 while he was in the hospital recovering from shell shock.  Ironically, Owen died in battle one week before the war ended in 1918.  He was twenty-five years old; however, his war experiences matured him far beyond his age. 

The title of the poem translates to “it is sweet and proper.” Sardonically, the poet means exactly the opposite.  The purpose of his poem is to warn the government and those who make war that men are dying and for what reason.  In addition, war is not honorable and noble.  It is death and maiming.

In the poem, a flashback approach is used.  This is the poet looking back at a terrrible memory.l The poet employs several literary devices to prove his assertion: there is no glory in war.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge

1st stanza


The men who are returning from the battle are described as old beggars with sacks

Their coughing is like hags [Old women who suffer with disease]


The men are so tired that they appear drunk with fatigue [as they stumble through the mud]

2nd stanza


There was a man who during a gas attack seems to be floundering like a person who is on fire or sipping a lime

The man who has swallowed the gas is as a man under water drowning.  This man received the alert to the gas too late.  The stanza is an extended metaphor portraying the pain he feels as he swallows the gas:

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

3rd stanza


And in the third stanza the metaphor continues when the poet admits that he dreams about the gassed man who plunges toward him guttering, choking, and drowning… The drowning feeling described when a person dies by taking water in his lungs compares to the man who dies after he takes in the gas.  .The reader then understands not only the speaker’s pain because he can do nothing to help the person who was poisoned but the terrifying effects of the mustard gas used in this war. 

4th stanza


The man who is drowning from the gas has his face hanging like the devil who no longer likes sin which describes the look of the dead or dying man

The man’s lungs are like a cancer and bitter as a cow’s cud.  The lungs suffer just as though they have cancer.


The man’s tongue is innocent

In the end of the poem, the poet quotes what he declares is the lie that has been told to young men before they go into the military and then into war:

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

Obviously, Wilfred Owen disagreed with this phrase by describing his gruesome portrayal of the soldier’s life.

Read the study guide:
Dulce et Decorum Est

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