Analysis

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Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

“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...

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“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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

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

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

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

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211

No-man’s-land

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

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.”

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