Dulce et Decorum Est Themes
The main themes in “Dulce et Decorum Est” are the limits of patriotism and the realities of war.
- The limits of patriotism: The ideals of war spread by patriotism and propaganda, Owen argues, serve only to perpetuate the suffering of those who fight.
- The realities of war: Owen’s descriptions of war are horrific, and he does not shy away from depicting its inhumane deaths and ultimate futility in full relief.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Limits of Patriotism
In Wilfred Owen’s time, most English schoolboys learned that war was glorious, as exemplified in the Latin phrase that gives the poem its title: “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” a quotation from the Roman poet Horace which means that to die for one’s country is sweet and fitting. Owen’s imagery makes clear that war is anything but heroic, glorious, or sweet. It is degrading, turning young men into “beggars” and “hags” who limp along on bleeding feet. It is not brave, strong men meeting in honorable battle; instead, it is the impersonal horror of exploding canisters of lethal green nerve gas and dying men thrown onto wagons. We are shown the image of a man helplessly gasping for breath as his bloody lungs are shredded by gas, an image that haunts the speaker in his dreams:
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
There is nothing noble in any of this. The imagery is shattering, showing war as a hideous nightmare.
The poem ends by stating that patriotic lies that glorify wars ultimately perpetuate them and lead to needless suffering and death. The speaker extends this truth directly to the audience throughout the final stanza, addressing readers as “you” and implying that they have either heard or repeated the lie that to die for one’s country is noble. Owen wants readers to know the truth and believes that, if they were to truly understand the horrors of war, they would end the perpetuation of that “old Lie.”
The Realities of War
The poem’s speaker makes a desperate attempt to end the abhorrence of war by telling the truth about it. Many anti-war poets during World War I hoped that if people knew what modern warfare was really like, they would turn away from war and stop supporting it. They thus countered the heroic myths of contemporary poets such as Rupert Brooke, whose poem “The Soldier” sentimentalizes death in war by stating that after he dies in battle, the patriotic soldier-speaker will be “at peace,” resting serenely “under an English heaven.”
In contrast, poets like Owen and his mentor, the English writer Siegfried Sassoon, made it their poetic mission to tell the truth about the particular inhumanity of modern warfare, in which technologies such as nerve gas could be used to brutally kill and wound many men at once. As Owen notes in another poem, called “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” there is no real glory for men “who die as cattle”: as collateral sacrificed on the altar of the nation. The only “passing-bells” these soldiers can expect to mark their deaths are the guns, shells, and bugles of war.
Owen was killed in battle in 1918, very shortly before the war ended. He was just twenty-five at his death. The bulk of his poems did not appear until after his death and the end of World War I, but nevertheless, they convey a stark, powerful message about war’s futility and horror.