What does Wilfred Owen argue in the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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carol-davis's profile pic

carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Wilfred Owens served in as a British soldier during World War I. His physical imagery served to portray the horrors of war. He wrote much of his poetry while in the hospital suffering from shell shock.  Unfortunately, only a week before the end of the war, Owen was killed in battle.

The poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”  translated from Latin means “ It is sweet and proper.” This is a sardonic title which really means that war involves suffering, pain, and death.

This was a war fought in the trenches filled with water, mud, rats, and bodies. In addition, this was a chemical war based on the release of mustard gas by the Germans. The gas devastated the lungs and the victims usually died a  painful death. 

Written in first person point of view, the narrator brings the reader into the midst of the tragic battle trenches. The rhyme scheme of the poem uses an ABABCDCD which gives an auditory aspect to the discordants sounds of the battle. This poem epitomizes the best of war poetry because after reading it there is no doubt that wars are horrific.  

1st stanza

The poet uses similes to describe the men trudging back to the trenches:

“Bent double like old beggars” “coughing like hags”

This is a war that killed over nine million men. The “distant rest” may be death or just behind the fighting lines.  It is no party.  Everything is ugly.  As they men march back to safety, many walk while asleep, without boots, with bloody feet, and without noticing the bombs dropping behind them. They are zombies without feeling or even hope.

2nd stanza

“Gas!GAS!Quick, boys!—

The repetition brings the reader into the midst of the mustard gas that brings about absolute chaos.  It is hardly ecstasy; however, if the ecstasy of fumbling brings the gas mask to the face, then it may be joyful to be able to once again breathe.

Someone in the group does not find his mask.  He is taken in by the gas.  He yells, stumbles, and flops around like a fish out of water.  Through the mist of the gas and the green pale lights, the speaker sees the man gasping for air. 

The narrator cannot face the scene head-on; he uses a simile to describe the hellish scene. It  encourages the feelings being surrounded by the fog mist. It is as though the poem begins to move in slow motion.

3rd stanza

Later, the narrator wakes from his dreams, he stills sees the man falling toward him drowning in his own liquids. There is nothing that the narrator can do to help the man. Forever after, the speaker replays the scene wishing that he could have helped the gasping man.

4th stanza

Speaking directly to the reader, the narrator explains that if everyone could experience putting the man in a wagon of death with the man’s eyes rolling back in his head as though the devil had taken over his spirit—he forces the reader into the scene.

There are some people who glorify war and give medals to the heroes.  Owen wants the reader to think about those who do not come back and die no hero’s death. 

These are the things that he wants the reader to visualize and hear:

  • Gurgling sounds of blood in the lungs as though someone were dying of cancer
  • Vile horrible things in the throat
  • Sores on the tongues of innocent men

If one can still describe war as a glorious event, then as Horace states:

 “Dulce et decorum  est pro patria mori. “

 It is a sweet and proper to die for one’s country.  Owen believes that this is a great lie.

Sources:
mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"The Poetry is in the pity," Owen wrote in the preface of a book of poetry that he did not intend to publish. Unlike many poets, Owen uses the romanticism of youth to counterveil the horror of war.  This odd juxtaposition of lyricism with the grotesqueries of battle point to the destortion of life and nature that war is.  

In the second stanza, for instance, Owen writes of the terror of the mustard gas in World War I with words more befitting a lovely image as he collapses two dissimilar activities into one,

Gas! GAS! Quick boys!--Anectasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
and flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

Of course, his refutation of the Latin motto: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori--It is sweet and appropriate [good and fitting] to die for one's country--strikes his ironic argumentative note of the futility and tradegy in one's sacrifice for war.

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