Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
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.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
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,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Summary

Originally the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” was written as a personal letter to Jessie Pope. Owen later decided to address his poem to the wider audience of all supporters of the war. This is a powerful anti-war poem which emphases the brutality of war, thereby undermining the conventional notions of honour and glory associated with wars. The poem describes a soldier dying from poison gas. After combat at the Front, the narrator and his troop of exhausted soldiers are making their way back to the base, when a Gas shell is fired at them. A soldier is fatally gassed and he is dying slowly, eaten away from inside, drowning in his own blood. The horrifying image of the dying soldier permeates the narrator’s dreams making him live the nightmare over and over again.

In this poem a line from an ode by the Roman poet Horace “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country) is being challenged by Owen. Owen does not use the entire line in the title. He stops at “Its sweet and proper to die”. He then proceeds to paint a picture of death–brutal death. The manner of death described seems to suggest that there is nothing that can justify this manner of death. After all there is nothing sweet and proper about a man drowning in his own blood–”guttering, choking drowning “white eyes writhing” “blood…gargling from froth corrupted lungs”. The meaning of the poem is firmly established at the end when the narrator says, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old lie” Dulce et Decorum Est Pro patria mori”. The title then is extremely ironical and the irony is sustained through the entire poem.

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