Last Updated November 3, 2023.
“Dulce et Decorum Est” describes the horrors of war from the close perspective of the trenches. Unlike patriotic poets who glorified war, Owen and other British anti-war poets of his day—including Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, and others—all set themselves to dismantling the “old Lie” that one must serve in increasingly brutal conflicts in order to love one’s country. In their work, they used sharp, horrific images of the realities of battle in order to break the placid surface of jingoism and falsified glory that had existed in some previous poetry of war. Many of these anti-war poets, and all of those listed above, died serving in World War I—the very war they believed unjust.
Owen dedicated an early draft of the poem “To Jessie Pope etc.” Pope was one of several British pro-war poets who published verses to encourage men to fight. One of her most famous, “Play the Game,” ends with the following call to action:
To-day there are worthier things to do.
Englishmen, play the game!
A truce to the League, a truce to the Cup,
Get to work with a gun.
When our country’s at war, we must all back up—
It’s the only thing to be done!
In contrast to Pope’s bland idealism about war, Owen sets himself to portraying its grim reality. Rather than using sweeping generalizations, he knows that the specific horror of war must be shown through the use of concrete particularities. The images used throughout “Dulce et Decorum Est,” then, are characterized by intense, gruesome precision: “we cursed through sludge,” “blood-shod,” “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.” In addition, Owen’s metaphors are often related to the uncanny, ghostly, or monstrous—as in “the haunting flares,” the “white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,” and the “blood . . . gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”—or the feeling of death by lack of air. This drowning at first belongs to the man who dies by gas:
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,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The sense of suffocation soon enters the speaker’s own “smothering dreams,” too, and Owen hopes it will enter the reader’s as well. At the poem’s end, Owen shifts into the second person, addressing “you”—which could potentially refer to Pope, but which also implicates the reader, drawing them into the world of the poem.
The final stanza, made of one long, unwinding sentence, ends with an argument against Horace’s adage. “Dulce et decorum est” (meaning it is sweet and fitting) ends the penultimate line. The following bisecting line break and the last line’s short length (in comparison to the rest of the poem’s use of pentameter) together serve to emphasize the meaning of the final clause. The last line reads “Pro patria mori,” to die for one’s country—and, given the syntactical structure of Latin, the poem ends on the verb: to die.