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 is the form of "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

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Owen's poem has three basic parts: two eight-line stanzas and a concluding stanza of twelve lines. The structure thus resembles that of an ode, the classical poetic form in which the stanzas are labeled strophe, antistrophe, and epode. In context, the use of the ode format conveys a grim irony.

The first stanza basically sets the scene of war, as a contingent of World War I soldiers staggers along, beleaguered and traumatized by the fighting they have evidently already seen, or at least by the general conditions of the front. The second stanza describes a gas attack and its devastating effects. The third stanza then delivers the poem's stark theme, the senselessness of war and the wrongness of the message encapsulated in the title, the famous Latin quote from an ode of Horace which means, "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country."

That line is so well known to literary people that Owen sees no need to translate it. The manner in which he quotes Horace is meant to strike the reader sharply, like a whip, though Owen has built up to it gradually and inevitably. We have already been shown the horror of war in explicit detail in stanza 2. Still, the effect of the quote at the end is so strong because Horace's maxim is (or was) something almost universally believed, a kind of conventional wisdom few people had questioned through the ages except those who were explicit pacifists. In World War I, young men were encouraged to enlist for the glory of their country, but found, by the millions, that the so-called glory was an illusion, and a horrific one. Owen's poem is a microcosm of the terror of war that occurs on a vast scale.

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When we talk about the form of a poem we normally are referring to such aspects as how the poem is structured and positioned on the page. If you have a look at the poem carefully, it is actually written in iambic pentameters with some variation. It is divided into four irregular stanzas of, respectively, 8 lines, 6 lines, 2 lines and 12 lines. The biggest variation in the meter is the last line, which only has 6 syllables, therefore emphasising the ending and the harsh, bitter criticism in the Latin quote that gives this excellent poem its title.

When we consider rhyme scheme, it is actually far more consistent. Consider how the rhyme scheme goes abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij klkl mnmn. The regularity of this rhyme scheme serves to emphasise the disturbing mood of the poem as we are forced to see the disparity between the harsh reality of war and romantic idealism, which is often portrayed through just such a regular rhyme scheme.

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