Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est about the first World War, in which he had personally fought. It was addressed to Jessie Pope, a writer of other poems concerning the War. Specifically he wrote the poem to counteract her poem “Who’s For The Game?”. Owen felt that Pope did not comprehend the seriousness of the war in her portrayal of the battle as a rugby game. Pope conveyed the participants of the ‘game’ were admirable and those who sat on the sidelines shunned and disregarded. His poem seems very depressing and gloomy, particularly in comparison, but is it not more realistic? Owen was a soldier himself, would he not know more about the horrors that war brings than the female poet, who could only be permitted to watch from the outside of her competitive yet carefree game of rugby? Personally, I think he would. At the time, Owen was put into a psychiatric hospital because the war had so badly affected him, broken his character. It was there that he met Siegfried Sassoon, who had been put into psychiatric care for writing poems that the authorities thought put the war into a negative light. It was Sassoon who encouraged Owen to become a poet, and they became good friends. The way Owen writes is very much sane and some would say he was quite an influential character. So how does Owen compare the horrors of war?
From the very first line you become aware that the poem is not likely to be as light and cheerful as Pope’s poem. The line is;
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Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
which is already a rather miserable tone. We see how Owen has begun to set the mood for his piece already. He describes the soldiers’ crooked stance and compares them to old beggars, uncomfortable and undesirable. In the second line he goes on to say that the men are knock-kneed and compares their coughs to those of hags. Again the undesirable, slightly unpleasant note is illustrated through the diction. The soldiers sound unwell, probably due to their harrowing lives in the trenches, which makes them dirty, sodden and more prone to illness.
In the third line the poet describes flares, long flames often used for signalling, as ‘haunting’ to the soldiers. This suggests that they are sick of the war and hate the constant reminders of it. Obviously they cannot get away from the war and the monotonous, dire lifestyle they faced every day in the ranks. Everywhere they turn constant reminders of the war surround them, weapons or perhaps even people that remind them of the loathsome duties they have to carry out. I know if it were I, I would feel that a sense of claustrophobia, an unease and repulsion of the things that I would be forced to cope with and an irrepressible urge to escape. I would hate the feeling of knowing that I could not just leave when I pleased and had to face the same tragic scene every day. This may be somewhat ‘deep’ for the first few lines of a poem, but I feel that these kind of subjects are already beginning to emerge. The line continues to say that the man turned their heads on the haunting flares, maybe in a half-hearted effort to shut them out of their minds.
Line four is even less enthusiastic – it describes the men as ‘trudging to their distant rest’. At least the men have something to look forward to, but then again maybe not, maybe the sentence has a double meaning, maybe ‘distant rest’ is meant to be read further into and is a disguised synonym of the deaths that eventually the men will encounter. If this is the case then the line is quite dark, but if the line is taken as it is written then there is a little more optimism being displayed.
Lines five to eight keep on with the tired, droning tone of those prior to them; they describe how the men were marching almost subconsciously, regardless of losing boots or small explosions in their wake. Such events as injury occurring around you may be shocking to most usually, but to people fighting in the war they have become the norm. The men are portrayed as ‘limping and blood-shod’. It is not surprising that the men would be limping in their state, but ‘blood-shod’ is not a recognised English term. It is similar to the expression ‘blood-shot’, which is customarily connected to the eyes, meaning a blood vessel has burst and blood seeped out into a network of red lines, rather unattractively. Also ‘shed’ (as in ‘bloodshed’) is likely to be a word that could be paired with ‘shod’. If bloodshed and bloodshot are welded together you will inevitably come up with blood-shod, which I think may be a mixture of the two – blood has been shed by the men and has exuded over the area of the wound. Lines seven and eight also describe the almost subconscious actions of the men. Some of the words used are ‘lame’ (although this may be literal as evidently men are liable to injury in a war situation), ‘blind’ (probably meaning ignorant of the occurrences around them) and ‘deaf’ (see the definition of blind).
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Line eight, the final line of the first stanza, includes a similar situation to that in line three. Owen describes the men as being deaf and blind to the noisy bombs (specifically Five-Nines) that fell after the soldiers. Like when they turned their backs to the flares, so they are, at least metaphorically, turning their backs on the bombs.
The second stanza starts with the word ‘Gas!’. The word is then repeated, this time in capitals. I think this usage of words creates an effect of a double take, as if the first time the word is heard the urgency is not delineated strongly enough. The monotonous, droning tone of the events in the last verse are carried through to the second and the reaction times of the soldiers has been affected in their fatigued predicament. The word takes a while to get through to the men properly but the second time they hear it they realise the imperative situation and know they have to think fast to help themselves. The rest of this line and the line proceeding it outline the men’s rush to put on the masks, and their clumsiness in their haste. The third line of this stanza, line eleven in the poem as a whole, begins to tell of how one soldier did not manage the operation quickly enough and was yelling for attention. The next line is:
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And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
This line sums up the groping, desperate movements of the man enveloped in this deadly gas. The word ‘floundering’, for whatever reason written as a slight abbreviation in the style of many historic poets and authors i.e. using an apostrophe in place of the appropriate vowel, is an adjective usually applicable to fish. There is a fish called the flounder, and because of it’s blundering movements the word ‘floundering’ was derived as an adjective pertinent to humans or creatures whose movements are alike. The man is out of his depth in the gas, like a fish out of water. The next line says there was a thick green line, likely to be created by the cloudy gas engulfing the light sources and making the light appear green. It is described as ‘thick’ although this cannot be a word directly connected to the word ‘light’ unless metaphorically, as in this case. The gas itself is thick and green, making the atmosphere thick and the light green. The next metaphor featured occurs in the next line –
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
This situation is linked to the earlier use of the word floundering, and carries on the sea theme in a more definite way. The man is giving up the fight, onomatopoeic of the desperate fight for air under a sea. The ‘sea’ in this situation is actually a cloud of green gas, but the effect is the same; suffocation and frantic snatching for help. The sudden realisation that death is imminent is not a pleasant one, it is, in fact, a discovery that most people would rather not make. Human instinct tells you to do everything in your power to escape the situation, and the man is trying his hardest to reach help but is having to very sharply come to terms with the fact that there will be no help for him. He is snatching and clumsily reaching for something that will rectify the situation, but he knows it won’t happen and this would be a terrifying prospect to anybody. The use of the word ‘drowning’ in this highly descriptive area of the poem depicts the struggle for air. Although in this case gas replaces sea, the concept is still basically the same – suffocation. I doubt whether anybody has the power to come to terms with a situation like that quickly enough to be able to make a difference and be able to sensibly think of all possible solutions efficiently. The brain is in a state of horrific panic and would not be able to concentrate on solving the problem wholly as basic instincts begin to take control as you fight for breath.
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The following two lines are separated from the others in their own very brief paragraph. The lines are:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The way these lines are set away from the others is an implication of their significance – these lines in particular are important. It is a personal insight of the mind of the narrator, who is telling us about how he is still haunted by visions of the dying man even in his sleep. This is a horrible thought, to still be having flashbacks of something as dire as that, and to be powerless to stop it. The word ‘guttering’ was a particularly noticeable word to me. It has a similar meaning to the word ‘spluttering’, as well as sounding similar, and is often applied to candles. Candles often splutter before they extinguish, as if they are finally accepting defeat, and this is the way the adjective is used in this case.
The next stanza is mostly on the same theme. In it Owen seems to be singling you out, although when you read it is evident why he addressed it to Jessie Pope. It tells of how the dead man was flung into a wagon randomly, and suggests that if it were you instead who had had to watch this dreadful occurrence it would affect you in the same way. He describes his dreams as ‘smothering’, which is related to his use of the word ‘helpless’, meaning that he could not escape the dreams and they surrounded him mentally. He feels a kind of claustrophobia about his dreams, he is stuck in a situation he despises and cannot get out of it. Owen tells in some quite morbid detail of the man’s expression, how his face was hung and his eyes writhing in his face. One particular phrase he uses is rather unusual: ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’. He uses this sentence to describe the expression on the man’s face. A devil sick of sin is a very extreme thought as the devil’s raison d’être is to sin. Using these words to outline the feelings of the man is to say that the man was sick of his life, specifically his life in the war. He has to fight and he was fed up of it, basically. But another point about this sentence is why would Owen choose these words? Why not say, for example, ‘an angel sick of righteousness?’. Why instead proffer an image of the devil? Simple:- the devil has connotations of terror and evil, and this is how the poet has chosen to describe the war, if only in the unfortunate case of the dead man, or of himself.
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The next lines carry on the putrid images; gargling blood, froth corrupted lungs, vile, incurable sores. These things are fearful and foul, and these are the types of things that the narrator is saying he saw happen and are now forcing themselves into his dreams every night, so that he may relive the horror. The lines generally describe negative, disgusting incidents, totally the opposite of the incidents Jessie Pope skims over in her poem. Line twenty-five actually includes the first prominent reference to Pope. The line is:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory
And is a follow on from the grotesque lines he has just written, saying that the woman would not tell of the war with enthusiasm if she had experienced it first hand or had witnessed such loathsome episodes. His last two lines are the main subject of the poem and include the title itself. Although these lines are not separated from the rest like the ones discussing how the man reappeared in his dreams every night, they are the most memorable as they are the last and the finality is extrusive within them. The final lines are:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
‘The old Lie’ is connected to how he views Jessie Pope’s impression of the war, which he feels is captured in the Latin expression. The Latin itself translates directly as ‘It’s sweet and glorious to die for your country’. Pope’s entire poem is focused on the accuracy of this statement, whereas Owen’s entire poem is focused on contradicting the statement. The poems are in sharp contrast to each other, but Owen’s holds first hand experience and in my view is far more impacting. The lines are a relevant end to the poem and leave the reader with the thought in their mind that perhaps war really isn’t as glorious as they’ve been told.
... of it, rather than the reasons for the war itself. In some of the poems, the issue of race was more evident ... embraced in Camouflaging the Chimera. The first word of the poem foreshadows the insignificance of color and the value of brotherhood ... in from America. In the poem Facing It, all Vietnam veterans are embraced.The opening line quickly dismantles any color association with ...
By Susy Hawkes 9K