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.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

The Limits of Patriotism

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 ,” which means that to die for one’s country is sweet and fitting. Owen’s imagery makes clear...

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The Limits of Patriotism

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,” 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.” It is not brave, strong men meeting in honorable battle; instead, it is the impersonal horror of exploding canisters of lethal green nerve gas. We are shown the image of a man helplessly gasping for breath as his bloody lungs are shredded by gas. There is nothing noble in any of this. The imagery is shattering, showing war as a 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. In contrast, poets like Owen and his mentor, 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.

Owen was killed in battle in 1918, very shortly before the war ended. He was just 25 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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

The major theme of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is associated with its Latin title, which is taken from a work by the poet Horace (658 b.c.). The full phrase (which Owen uses to close his poem) is dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which can be loosely translated, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen consciously works to undermine this noble statement of patriotism by showing the ignominy of death in modern war.

The reader who has some knowledge of classical literature, especially epic poetry and the heroic odes which celebrate great warriors who fall in battle while serving their nation, will immediately see Owen’s strategy. The men he describes in this war are anything but noble. Instead of confronting their foes in single combat, the soldiers in Owen’s poem are retreating from the front lines. They are tired, both physically and psychologically. They are almost deaf to the sounds of the falling gas bombs that could take their lives at any moment.

Unlike the heroes of earlier wars, these soldiers do not face death at the hands of a recognizable enemy who bests them with sword or spear. Instead, death comes from afar; worse still, it comes impersonally in the form of an insidious poison that snuffs out life in a brief instant of agony (which Owen contrasts subtly with the “ecstasy of fumbling” [line 9] that occurs when the men try to put on their masks). These soldiers utter no death-bed speeches, as did their classical counterparts whom Horace and earlier poets celebrated. Instead, the only sounds emitted by those under gas attack are incoherent yells and—after death—a “gargling” from “froth-corrupted lungs” that occurs as the corpse of the soldier too slow to put on his mask in time is carted off to burial.

Owen served as a lieutenant in the British Army during World War I; ironically, he was killed shortly before the armistice was signed. Having grown up in England at the end of the nineteenth century, Owen would have come to the war imbued with a sense of patriotism, as the British had gone to great lengths to convince themselves that they were engaging in a noble conflict to save humankind. The graphic realities of the battlefield did not match the glorious descriptions of war prevalent in the literature Owen and his educated officer comrades had read. There was no glory in dying from gas poisoning. What Owen seems to have realized is that death by gassing was a metaphor for all death in modern warfare; the notion of a glorious death was simply a lie. “Dulce et Decorum Est” graphically depicts a central irony of death on the modern battlefield: No matter how noble the cause may be, the individual soldier can expect nothing but misery in combat and an ignominious end should he be unfortunate enough to become a casualty.

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