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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What does the phrase "like a devil's sick of sin" mean in Dulce et Decorum Est?

Quick answer:

Owen describes the "hanging" face of one soldier as "like a devil's sick of sin." He is implying that the soldier looks so horrified and mangled by what he has suffered that he appears devilish, as if he is "sick of sin" which should surely be impossible for a devil. The "sin" of war is so great that even devils are appalled by it.

Expert Answers

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This vivid simile is an interesting one to try to unpack. Owen describes the "hanging" face of a soldier who has been thrown into a wagon. His eyes are "writhing" in his face and his lungs are "gargling." He is evidently a horrific sight, and when Owen describes his face as being "like a devil's" it is easy to understand why. The man no longer looks quite human, but as if he has been transformed by the "sin" of war into something less than human, like a devil. Possibly, Owen is alluding to the paintings of devils often found in English churches at that time, in which sinners in hell become devilish and are depicted screaming in agony as they are tormented.

If a devil is "sick of sin," the implication is that the level of sin must be truly deplorable. A devil is supposed to enjoy sin, and to cultivate it in other people. For this man to be compared to a devil who has suffered so much sin that even he has had too much of it, it is clear that the level of sin and suffering must have been very great indeed. Owen is underscoring the sinful nature of this war and the way in which it transforms soldiers into creatures like this man, physically "corrupted" by the sins of war.

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