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"Dulce et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen, is war-poetry. Owen wrote a number of poems about the images of war that he witnessed personally on the battlefield during World War I. Ironically, and sadly, after being wounded, he returned to the front and was killed only days before the Armistice (agreement to end the fighting) was signed.
In this particular poem, the imagery is particularly vivid, reliving the horrors of World War I, when poisonous gas was used as a weapon. It was a horrific way to die. These are the images Owen shares, along with the "old lie," the sad irony that it is NOT sweet and right to die for your country: it may be noble, but there is nothing sweet about it, especially in the face of what he sees and shares with his audience.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
These images describe men who, like the poor and oppressed, are bent over, knees shaking, coughing like old women as they move through the muck of the trenches and battlefield.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy 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.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight...
This passage describes the gas attack launched by the enemy. Quickly the men put on their gas masks (helmets)—just in time... but sickeningly, someone out there is not so lucky. The speaker can see him through the glass of his own mask. The gas is green, making the light there green and haunting. And like a man drowning, the speakers watches, as he will do also in his dreams, helpless to do anything.
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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...
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Of vile, incurable sores...
The speaker's words bring us to the man without the mask: he comes toward the speaker, choking and looking for some help—perhaps he knows it's useless even in his "plunging" panic. And the speaker "invites" us to walk with him, behind the wagon they put him in, and live through his death: "eyes writhing in his face," "the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs," as he slowly suffocates, from the burning gas he has breathed that has burnt his tongue, his throat, his lungs...his life.
In closing, the speaker addresses the reader again, for a final time:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
He says to us, if we could follow the dying man in the back of the wagon, and be haunted in our dreams as the speaker is by what he has seen, perhaps we would stop telling war stories with energy and enthusiasm to children excited to hear of the glories of battle, and maybe we would also stop spreading the "old lie,"—"Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori—"
It is sweet and right to die for your country.
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