Tommy's War

WWI Poetry

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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.

*

Most would agree that Wilfred Owen was one of the best poets produced by the Great War. Personally, I think he was THE best. Dulce et Decorum Est is one of his most widely-known poems. It is not, however, universally admired. Some think it is excessive, particularly in the third stanza. I don't agree with this view: the war itself was 'excessive' and nobody bettered Owen in the expression of anger through the building-up of unpalatable detail.

The poem was probably written in late 1918. This would have made Dulce et Decorum Est one of his last poems. At all events, it was written after his time in Craiglockhart where he met Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have a beneficial influence on his poetry. With the 'smothering dreams' Owen writes about at the beginning of stanza three, Owen was certain to be writing about dreams of his own; part of the 'shell shock' that got him admitted to Craiglockhart in the first place.

In many of his poems, Owen made his mark by his innovative use of forms of near-rhyme. In this one, though, he has not shrunk from use of traditional full-rhyme.

In his own 'table of contents' for his proposed 1919 collection of poetry, Owen classes this as a 'poem of protest' and decribes his motivation for writing it as 'indifference at home'. Owen originally subtitled the poem To a certain poetess. The 'poetess' was Jesse Pope, whose frantically patriotic poetry was popular at the time.

The heart of the poem has to be in the Latin saying, taken from Horace's Odes and widely known at the time. The saying means 'it is sweet and right to die for one's country'. It is easy to imagine 'the old lie' being spat out in anger at the end of the poem.