The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Wilfred Owen had considerable first-hand experience of the horrors of gas warfare during World War I, and his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is an attempt to depict the helplessness of men caught in a gas attack. Writing in four irregular verse paragraphs, Owen describes the general condition of men involved in the war, sketches briefly the shock of a gas attack, then dwells on the aftermath of this tragic event on someone who lives through it.

Although it is often unwise to associate the narrator of a poem with its author, it is quite likely that in “Dulce et Decorum Est” Owen is speaking in his own voice. His method of direct address to the reader makes his appeal in the final lines especially compelling.

Owen opens the poem with a description of a group of demoralized soldiers retreating from the front lines of the battlefield. The men are clearly fatigued (“Men marched asleep,” the narrator observes), so worn down that they are “deaf even to the hoots/ Of gas-shells dropping softly behind” (lines 78). Then, suddenly, someone shouts “Gas! GAS!” (line 9), and the men go into an “ecstasy of fumbling” (line 9) to put on masks before the deadly poison can take their lives. All but one are successful; the narrator looks out from behind the glass of his protective mask into the “green sea” (line 14) that the gas has created around him and his comrades, watching helplessly as one of his fellow soldiers dies in agony.

The image of that dying soldier is one that can never leave the narrator. As readers learn in the two lines set off from the rest of the text, the sight of that dying comrade haunts the narrator’s dreams, as the soldier “plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (line 16).

That memory prompts the narrator to offer in the final verse paragraph some bitter advice to readers about the nature of warfare and the outcome of blind patriotism. In the last twelve lines of the poem, Owen describes his experience of walking behind the wagon in which the dead man has been placed, seeing the corpse frozen in the twisted agony of its death throes. That sight, he says, would prevent any man from adopting glibly the notion that dying for one’s country is somehow noble.

Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

What most readers notice immediately when reading “Dulce et Decorum Est” is the vividness of Owen’s imagery. The poet is able to make the horrors of warfare come alive before readers’ eyes. Some of those images are expressed in carefully chosen metaphors; others are simply presented in graphic language that describes the scene as the narrator sees it or remembers it.

Owen frequently collapses two activities into a single image, thereby heightening the reader’s awareness of the agony of the soldiers he describes. For example, in the opening lines, he captures the frustration of the men as they move across the battlefield in a single phrase; “we cursed through sludge” (line 2) suggests the simultaneous activities of moving forward while uttering a continuous stream of obscenities about their fate. To describe the difficulty of some of his comrades who no longer have boots to wear but who must go on about their duties, he says, “[w]e limped on, blood-shod”—graphically depicting the condition of the men’s feet by a single compound adjective that captures both the sight and the feeling of this situation. Other examples of such vivid language abound: Owen describes the memory of the man who dies of gas poisoning with such phrases as “the white eyes writhing in his face” (line 19), “the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (lines 2122). The comparisons, too, are intended to reinforce in readers the sense of frustration and horror these soldiers feel. Owen describes them as being “like old beggars under sacks” (line 1). He characterizes his dying comrade-in-arms as “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” (line 12); and in his dreams he sees the dead soldier’s face looking “like a devil’s sick of sin” (line 20)—certainly one of the most horrific renditions of distortion and disgust one might imagine.

All of these images are intended to contrast with the Latin maxim from which the poem’s title is taken: “Dulce et decorum est,” that is, “it is sweet and proper,” to undergo the agonies of disfigurement and death in the name of patriotism. Owen’s bitter indictment of this philosophy comes through in the words he chooses to depict the death of his fellow soldier.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


No-man’s-land. Dangerous zone between facing enemy lines that could be on any of a number of World War I battlefields, sites that were fought over for months and years until the land became an eerie moonscape of craters, unexploded shells, and land leached of all nutrients by noxious residues of powders and gas. This gray world is lighted only by phosphorescent gases and flares; its sounds are those of exploding shells and dying men.

An unexpected gas attack turns the soldiers’ world a peculiar sea green, and a comrade “drowns” when his lungs fill with blood and other body fluids. This wretched scene is designed to counter those who would coax the young into joining a war out of a mixture of desire for excitement and patriotism. The desolate scene explodes the patriotic lie “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori,” promulgated by the Roman writer Horace in his Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.; English translation, 1621). Death in no-man’s-land is not sweet and fitting but obscene and painful. A nameless no-man’s-land from the battles of World War I provides the depressingly realistic backdrop of Wilfred Owen’s poem which hopes to warn against mindless patriotism unconnected to actual war, which is grim and tragic.


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Griffith, George V. “Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est.’” Explicator 41, no. 3 (1983): 37-39. Provides a detailed reading of the poem, with an emphasis on images of voice. Griffith argues that “Dulce et Decorum Est” is as much a poem about poetry as it is about “the pity of war.”

Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1986. An illuminating study of Owen’s “poethood” based primarily on careful readings of the poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Owen, Wilfred. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Edited with an introduction and notes by C. Day Lewis. New York: New Directions, 1964. The definitive edition of Owen’s poetry includes juvenilia, notes concerning manuscript variants, and two essential essays by accomplished poets. Also includes a memoir by Edmund Blunden.

Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. London: Oxford University Press, 1974. This definitive biography sheds valuable light on the context and occasion of “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Welland, Dennis. Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study. Rev. ed. London: Chatto and Windus, 1978. In this first and perhaps most influential study of Owen’s poetry, Welland argues that “Dulce et Decorum Est,” though masterly, is inferior to later, less strident poems such as “The Sentry.”