Explain the three stanzas and the final proclamation in the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est".

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In the first stanza, the soldiers are described as "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags." This visual imagery reinforces the physical enervation of the men. They are "knock-kneed"--this condition where the knees touch and the legs are angled inward reinforces the image of old age. Hags are, of course, old women. These men are bent and burdened with the exertions of war; the freshness of youth seems to have eluded them.

The soldiers walk back to their "distant rest" or camp in order to recuperate. During their journey, they curse their way through the "sludge" or mud. Many have lost their boots but continue to march on to their destination; their feet are muddied and bloodied, but they must make camp despite the fact that they are "drunk with fatigue." The "haunting flares" refer to the nightmarish quality the flares give off--these "flares" were usually star-shells in World War One. These shells typically gave off light that illuminated the battlefield when the need called for it. The phrase "all went lame, all blind" possibly refers to the impotence of the men in the face of relentless warfare; they are collectively paralyzed in morale and courage. They are too demoralized and tired to continue fighting; the reference to "Five-Nines" has been explained in my answer here.

In the second stanza, the men are fumbling with their "clumsy helmets." This refers to the men quickly pulling on their gas masks. To understand chemical warfare during World War One, please refer to my previous answer on this poem. In the midst of this defensive action, the narrator tells us that he sees a man floundering in "fire or lime." It appears as if the soldier is drowning ("thick green light" and "green sea" highlight the ocean imagery). However, if you prefer a historical perspective, consider the 160 tons of chlorine gas released in Ypres, Belgium on April 22, 1915. After these steel cylinders released their poisonous contents on unsuspecting French and Algerian troops, greenish-gray clouds enveloped the battlefield. Compare the description of the agonies suffered by the soldiers to the poet's own descriptions. You will find an interesting similarity.

Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades... (Chemical Warfare, Amos Fries and C.J. West)

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning ("Dulce et Decorum Est")

In the last stanza, the poet describes the horrendous effects of chlorine gas poisoning. He talks about "froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—" The chlorine gas causes the soldiers to cough up green froth from their lungs. "Bitter as cud" refers to the grass cows chew. Since grass is green, this is a reference to the green froth the soldiers throw up after being exposed to the gas.

...propped up against a wall . . . —all gassed—their color was black, green & blue, tongues hanging out & eyes staring—one or two were dead and others beyond human aid, some were coughing up green froth from their lungs. (Seeking victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War One).

As mentioned in my previous post, the final proclamation "The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori" directly translates as "It is sweet and seemly to die for one's fatherland." Alternatively, you can also translate it as "It is sweet and good/glorious to die for one's country." The words are taken from Horace's Odes here where Horace proclaims, "What joy, for fatherland to die." However, the author of "Dulce et Decorum Est" proclaims the words a lie, that war is not virtuous, but filled with suffering which results in agonizing deaths.

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