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Wilfred Owen, a well-known English poet, and combatant in World War I, wrote the stirring war poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” during the war. The Latin proverb “Dulce et decorum est,” which means “It is sweet and honorable,” acts as a sarcastic preface to the poem’s examination of the harsh realities of war. Owen challenges conventional ideas of patriotism and sacrifice by exposing the atrocities and lies of war via vivid images, deep emotions, and a moving tale.
About the poet
Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier who lived from 18 March 1893 to 4 November 1918. He was a prominent poet during the First World War. His war poetry, which focused on the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks and was heavily influenced by his master Siegfried Sassoon, contrasted with both the public’s understanding of war at the time and the assuredly patriotic lyrics of earlier war poets like Rupert Brooke. His best-known pieces include “Dulce et Decorum est,” “Insensibility,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “Futility,” “Spring Offensive,” and “Strange Meeting”; most of them were released after his death. A week before the war’s end, on November 4, 1918, Owen, at 25 years old, was killed in battle.
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
British troops would make their way farther into France as they pursued German troops by trudging from trench to trench. It was frequently a dismal, rainy trek, and the poem begins on one of these journeys. Though the war is still raging in the background (’till on the haunting flares we turned our backs / and towards our distant rest began to trudge’), it is immediately reduced to a small number of feeble, worn-out soldiers. The opening line of the poem is a demonstration of utter tiredness and mind-numbing anguish. Owen employs heavy terms to describe their movement, such as “trudge” and “limped.”
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.
The pace quickly shifts in the second verse. It begins with the cry “Gas! Gas!” To avoid being overcome by the gas, the soldiers are instantly in “an ecstasy of fumbling,” frantically searching for their helmets. Once more, Owen makes effective use of language by expressing speed, urgency, and an almost frantic need for their helmets. One soldier, nevertheless, is unable to quickly put his helmet on. Owen observes him through the thick-glassed window of his gas mask, ‘flound’ring like a man in fire or lime’.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Owen briefly pauses the action in the poems for two lines before returning to his own mind. In his words, “In all my dreams,/ before my helpless sight,” he illustrates how these pictures continue to haunt troops and how these men continue to suffer the effects of war long after they have left it. War cannot be avoided or escaped.
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.
The poem’s final line, “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace,” condenses the poem to an almost claustrophobic pace. Owen then describes the suffering mustard gas victims endured in graphic detail, including “froth-corrupted lungs,” “incurable sores,” and “the white eyes writhing in his face.” Although the poem’s tempo has slowed to a crawl, the description of the victim of mustard gas’s agony has a lot going on, providing a contrast between the background’s stillness and the victim’s animated state. This contrast draws attention to the description and makes it seem even more repulsive.
The visceral ballad poem “Dulce et decorum est” by Owen is a powerful example of poetry. It is visceral poetry that mainly relies on the senses, and by the last line, it has stepped back to present a more comprehensive picture of the events and portrays the horror of the mustard gas assault. It is pleasant and right to die for your nation, as the Latin proverb “Dulce et decorum est” states. The poem was first mentioned in print on October 8, 1917.