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

Start Free Trial

What is the theme of Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

Quick answer:

The message of "Dulce et Decorum Est" is that war is horrible, not heroic or patriotic as the soldiers who fight in it are led to believe. Owen wants to tell the true story of war so that people will stop telling the "old lie" that it is glorious.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main theme of this harrowing poem is the dehumanizing influence or destructiveness of war. Other themes include death and man's utter impotence in the face of relentless physical assault.

The poet highlights his themes through visual, tactile, and auditory imagery which culminates in the proclamation of what he calls the 'old Lie Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.' Translated, this literally means ' It is sweet and seemly to die for one's fatherland.'

In the poem, the soldiers are 'bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags...' Here, we have the visual imagery of soldiers who have been reduced to pitiful caricatures of manhood; under relentless physical assault, they can only hope to 'trudge' back to their 'distant rest' or camp in a stupor of sorts. Fatigued beyond belief, they march as if asleep. The poet tells us that 'all went lame, all blind.' The word 'all' is significant. Aside from the obvious physical implications of blindness and physical impotence, a metaphorical blindness can allude to how all the soldiers are blinded or rendered defenseless by the overwhelming forces against them. In the face of relentless pressure, the morale of the whole troop has been crippled; the mental and physical paralysis are evident in the phrase 'Drunk with fatigue.'

Even though the soldiers present a demoralized formation marching back to camp, they soon find themselves scrambling to fit on their 'helmets' or gas masks when shells explode in their vicinity. Some versions of the poem describe 'Five-Nines' exploding near the soldiers. In World War One, these 'Five-Nine' shells came from German field howitzers, 15 cm schwere Feldhaubitze 13s, which decimated whole Allied platoons mercilessly and systematically during the beginning of the war. The 'Five-Nine' reference comes from the internal measurement of the barrel which is 5.9 inches.

Take a look at the German howitzer here and here.

The poet continues the poem by describing what happens to anyone who suffers a chemical gas attack from these shells.

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

During World War One, the Germans filled artillery shells with various deadly chemicals. These deadly chemicals caused acute and terrible physical suffering and/or death on Allied troops; they included mustard gas, chlorine gas, and diphosgene gas. All these were toxic, and many caused burning in the eyes, throats, and lungs. Compare the passage above about the physical suffering of the soldier with what happened to any soldier unfortunate enough to be caught without his gas mask when one of these shells exploded near him during the war.

"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of ten cases - of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes . . .all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke."

Source: Chemical Warfare During the First World War

So, you can see that the horrific visual imagery of 'vile incurable sores' and 'froth-corrupted lungs' reinforces the themes of death and the destructiveness of war. The poet thus contends that 'Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori' is cold comfort in the face of agony and torture; he wishes the ugliness of war to be made known to all those who would sacrifice for freedom's sake. The battlefield is not a place to secure some 'desperate glory;' rather, it is a place of suffering and death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the central purpose of the poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

Wilfred Owen, like so many other people, was deeply affected by the experience of World War I. In previous wars, the armies would line up and charge one another. In WWI, however, chaos and destruction were the only rules.

In "Dulce et Decorum Est," Owen decribes what it was like for men who had been attacked with mustard gas; it is not made from mustard but got its name because of its odor. This gas attacks the lungs:

Exposure to low concentrations of mustard gas classically causes the reddening and blistering of skin and epithelial tissue. On inhalation, the gas causes the lining of the lungs to blister and leads to chronic respiratory impairment. Higher concentrations of mustard gas will attack the corneas of the eyes and can cause blindness.

When the soldiers in the poem detect the gas, the scramble to put on their gas masks. All but one manage to do so. Owen describes how that lone soldier dies in agony.

Masterplots states the author's purpose well:

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the message of "Dulce et Decorum Est"?

"Dulce et Decorum Est" was written during World War I by Wilfred Owen, a soldier who served in it, and he harshly critiques that war. But the poem is also more generally a statement against all wars.

The phrase from which the poem takes its title, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," meaning "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country," was a familiar line touted by wartime propaganda, suggesting that dying in the war in the service of one's country was the noble thing to do. This sort of patriotism was used to persuade thousands of young men to leave their homes and join the war effort.

Owen, in contrast, describes a modern battle scene that is anything but heroic. The soldiers are bedraggled, weary, and "bent over, like old beggars." A gas attack comes, and the poem's speaker graphically describes the frothing blood, burned lungs, and agonized "writhing" of the soldier who does not get his gas mask on in time. Owen depicts it as pointless suffering—bitter and meaningless, not sweet and proper. Nobody thinks of their homeland: they are simply trying to survive another day.

Owen ends the poem by making the message clear. His speaker tells readers that the idea that war is sweet and fitting is the "old lie." He also states that if people knew the reality of warfare they would not repeat this lie to young men "desperate" for "glory." By writing this poem, he is bringing civilians to the battlefield so they can witness the reality for themselves and start constructing a new narrative that discourages, rather than encourages, war.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on