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

Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen is a poem about the horrors of war as experienced by a soldier on the front lines of World War I.

  • The speaker depicts soldiers trudging through the trenches, weakened by injuries and fatigue.
  • Suddenly, the men come under attack and must quickly put on their gas masks. One man dies horrifically in front of the speaker.
  • The speaker argues that if the reader had seen this man die, they wouldn’t glorify war. He knows that the general public has a glamorized view of war, and he wants to dispel it.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Introduction

Published posthumously in 1920, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is emblematic of a new tide in war poetry. In contrast to earlier verses, such as Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” that glorified fighting on behalf of one’s country, Owen’s poetry presents the realities and horrific traumas of modern warfare in full relief. In fact, “Dulce et Decorum Est” was first drafted while Owen was in treatment in Edinburgh for shell shock (or what one might call post-traumatic stress disorder today) in 1917. Owen was killed in battle in 1918, at the age of twenty-five.

Plot Summary

The poem’s speaker is a young soldier who has fought in World War I (1914–1918), and he narrates the poem from some time after the events of the poem take place. He has had time to reflect on the events he narrates, and we see this narrative perspective through his use of the past tense and his references to the recurrence of appalling memories of war in dreams.

The speaker recalls the extreme physical hardships of his tour of duty. He and the other very young men do not seem young anymore at all; in fact, he compares them to “old beggars” and “hags” because they are so weary and broken by their experiences in war. They have to keep marching—even without boots and with bloody feet, even if they are nearly asleep while they do so. The men are so exhausted by their duties that they seem “lame,” “blind,” “drunk,” and “deaf”; they cannot even hear the sounds of war erupting around them.

When enemy troops drop gas shells on them, the speaker’s battalion has to move quickly to fit their gas masks over their faces. But they are so tired that they move clumsily and confusedly, and one soldier fails to secure his mask in time and breathes in the thick and deadly gas as a result. “As under a green sea,” the speaker says, “I saw him drowning.”

Back in the present time, the speaker has terrible dreams of this man lunging toward him, “guttering, choking, drowning” on the gas. The speaker is struck by both the man’s utter helplessness and his own.

The speaker says that if we, the readers, could see what it was like to walk behind the wagon in which they put the man while he died, if we could see his eyes rolling around and the awful gurgling sounds coming from his burned lungs, we would never spread what Owen terms the “old Lie”:

Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

—that is, in the words of the Roman poet Horace, that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. We would never tell this to young children who romanticize war or who long for glory on foreign shores. Owen shows, through this speaker’s experiences and those of the men around him, that it is not sweet to die in war: it can far more easily be drawn-out, horrible, nightmarish, degrading, and incredibly painful.

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