soldier crawling on hands and knees through a trench under a cloud of poisonous gas with dead soldiers in the foreground and background

Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen

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Dulce Et Decorum Est Tone

What is the tone of the "Dulce et Decorum Est"? How is it achieved?

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The tone of this anti-war poem is bitter. Owens is bitter at the way warfare, and in particular World War I, has been glorified. This leads to the ironic title "Dulce et decorum est," a Latin phrase which means "it is sweet and honorable." It is taken from a longer passage from Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," which means "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country."

The vivid, violent imagery in the poem shows, in contrast, that dying for one's country is anything but sweet and honorable. The soldiers in the opening lines are not sweet, noble, or heroic: they are "knock-kneed" and "coughing" like "hags." They are weary, blind, lame, limping, fatigued.

Much of the poem describes the horrific effects of a gas attack. Once again, Owens shows the misery and lack of glory in war. The blood gurgles from the lungs of the gas victim as he is jolted along in a wagon while sores form on his tongue. 

The speaker ends bitterly by stating that if people could see the horrors he has seen, they would not be so eager to tell children "ardent for some desperate glory" what the speaker calls "the old Lie": that war is sweet and honorable. 

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The tone of Wilfred Owen's poem is ironic and horrific.  "Dulce et Decorum est pro para mia" is a Latin quotation by Horace, the great Roman poet.  It means, "It is sweet and becoming to die for one's country."

Owens begins disabusing the reader of this notion from the very first line.  The picture the speaker creates of the soldiers "Bent double, like old beggars sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge" (1-2).  To this day, many young men and women are enchanted by romantic ideas of war, which has never been pretty in reality.

But World War I brought horrors never known and an enemy, mustard gas, that was unseen.  The speaker describes the frantic haste to don protective gear but the insidious cloud is fast moving.  He describes watching a fellow solider be overcome "under a green sea," the gas, under which "I saw him drowning" (14) Death by mustard gas was hideously painful:  this is why the man is "flound'ring like a man in fire or lime" (11). 

In death, the living watch the dying man's "gargling from the froth corrupted blood" (22).

Finally, the speaker realizes the "old lie."  It is not sweet or becoming to die in this way. 

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The tone in a poem is like the tone of voice you use when you speak.  The tone you use with a child, or a dog, or you boss is different--and changes according to the situation.  You speak to a child who has purposefully spilled milk on the floor differently than one who has spilled it on accident.

The tone of this poem is defiant and angry...

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but in a realistic way.  There is no shouting with the exception of theGas! Gas! Quick, boys! line It is achieved by reporting what is happening in vivid, gruesome images.  The speaker then pointedly tells the reader that war is not something to be romanticized and glorified--dying is not honorable or fun.  There is nothing heroic about drowning in a sea of green mist with your lungs froth-corrupted, choking on your own blood.

Go back and take a look at the poem word for word.  Mark the words with negative connotations (how do they make you feel?) and understand the tone/mood he is setting. 

The soldier wants us to know that the latin phrase is a lie.  He is angry that he is there, living this way, and people on the outside are thinking it is all hunky-dorey.  The trench poets (which Owen is a member) wrote about the reality of war long before realism was popular.  Shock value was high when these poems were written since technology did not afford the entire world to watch the war as it happened on TV and the internet. 

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