What are some examples of oxymorons in "Dulce et Decorum Est?"
Wilfred Owen wrote poems that are astringent rather than sentimental. His poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"—a title taken from the last two lines from Horace, Odes III:ii: "Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland"—sharply contradicts this idea. By using oxymorons, Owen aims to shock people out of their illusions that war is a noble venture. The astringency of these contradictions presented with the oxymorons in the poem removes the sentimentality from the idea of war.
In order to convey the perversity of the idea of the glory of war, Owen employs oxymorons, figures of speech in which two successive words collide to create rhetorical effects as they contradict each other. One such oxymoron is "smothering dream." The contradiction between the negative connotation of the word "smothering" with the pleasant connotation of "dream," has an impact that produces the realization that the mustard gas chokes off all dreams of a future for the soldier. Another oxymoron is "desperate glory" since these two words have contradictory denotations. For, a desperate person is in a negative state, but glory involves positive feelings. Certainly, there is no glory—no achievement—in desperation, or death.
One example of oxymoron used in "Dulce et Decorum Est" is found in the poem's pivotal event--the poison gas attack that leads to the death or incapacitation of the narrator's young comrade. As the shell hits, Owen describes an "ecstasy of fumbling" as the men struggle to don their protective gas masks. Another example of oxymoron is the phrase "smothering dreams," used to ask the reader to identify with the horrific scene he has just witnessed. Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, Owen employs the oxymoron "desperate glory." He says that the men who promoted the "old lie" that dying for one's country was "sweet and proper" to young men who wanted "desperate glory" would not feel that way if they had witnessed the scene he witnessed. Nothing in this poem is glorious. The men are miserable, slogging through mud and mire, and surrounded by death on a daily basis. These oxymorons are used to help deliver this point.