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Owen’s argument in this poem is against war, and specifically against the positive and even glorious images of war that are advanced in some quarters – for instance by the respected Latin poet Horace. The title of the poem is a translation of Horace’s aphorism that ‘ it is sweet and right to die for your country’. At the end of the poem Owen explicitly denounces this as ‘the old Lie’ (27) – capitalizing the word ‘Lie’ in order to emphasise the enormity of this deception which has been practised over the centuries.
Owen’s method of argument is to let the horrors of war speak for themselves in a series of grim images that precede his fervent conclusion. In particular, he focuses on the picture of a man who has been gassed. He presents the whole dreadful scene in the most vivid manner:
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,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,.. (17-22)
Owen asks us, or rather forces us to imagine the appalling suffering inflicted by war. He pulls no punches in his physical descriptions of ‘the blood gargling/ from the froth-corrupted lungs’ and so on.The likening of the gas victim’s face to ‘devil’s sick of sin’ is also effective, underlining the real evil of the whole business of war.
The poem, then, like Owen’s poetry in general, functions as a savage indictment of war, and particularly the unprecedented horrors of the first world war in which he served. It was a conflict that was initially greeted with enthusiasm throughout Europe before realization set in about the real nature of trench warfare, the use of tanks, machine guns and poison gas. Owen’s poems were written with the express purpose of shocking readers out of their complacency and any lingering notions they might have had about the heroism and glory of war, as extolled by governments and generals and poets like Horace.
I thought was the experience in the war he trying to share with the readers but, we will never know how bad and terrible was his life.
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