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Analysis of Poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Updated on January 24, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

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Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen | Source

Wilfred Owen and Dulce et Decorum Est


Dulce et Decorum Est is a poem Wilfred Owen wrote following his own experiences fighting in the trenches in northern France in World War One.

"Here is a gas poem...done yesterday" he wrote to his mother from the recovery hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, in 1917. He was 24 years old. A year later he was killed in action, just one week before the Armistice was signed to signal the end of hostilities.

The poem was published posthumously in a 1920 book simply called Poems. Wilfred Owen's preface contains the words: 'This book is not about heroes....My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.'

Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori, which is a line taken from the latin Odes of Roman poet Horace, means It is sweet and proper to die for one's country. In his poem, Wilfred Owen takes the opposite stance.

He is in effect saying - It is anything but sweet and proper to die for one's country - in a hideous war that took the lives of over 17 million people.

A poem that still resonates today, with brutal language and imagery, written by a young soldier recovering from his wounds, brave enough to return to the battlefield.

Dulce et Decorum Est

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.

Themes

War

Propaganda

Politics

Hero Worship

Patriotism

Lessons Learned From The Past

Analysis Stanza by Stanza


Dulce et Decorum Est might have started out as a double sonnet - there are 28 lines in total - and many lines are in iambic pentameter, with end rhymes. Owen must have decided against it as he worked on the draft, ending up with four unequal stanzas.

First Stanza

The first line takes the reader straight into the ranks of the soldiers, an unusual opening, only we're told they resemble old beggars and hags (note the similes) by the speaker who is actually in amongst this sick and motley crew.

  • The initial rhythm is slightly broken iambic pentameter until line five when commas and semi-colons and other punctuation reflect the disjointed efforts of the men to keep pace.

Note the term blood-shod which suggests a parallel with horses, and the fact that many are lame, drunk, blind and deaf. The trauma of war has intoxicated the soldiers.

Second Stanza

Suddenly the call goes up - Gas!. We delve deeper into the scene as chemical warfare raises its ugly head and one man gets caught out. He's too slow to don his gas mask and helmet which would save his life by filtering out the toxins.

  • An ecstasy of fumbling - ecstasy is used here in the sense of a trance-like frenzy as the men hurriedly put on their helmets, nothing to do with happiness.

The poem becomes personal and metaphorical, the speaker sees the now drowning man as if he were underwater. Misty panes add an unreal element to this traumatic scene, as though the speaker was looking through a window.

Third Stanza

Only two lines long, this stanza brings home the personal effect on the speaker. I, my, me - the image sears through and scars despite the dream-like atmosphere created by the green gas and the floundering soldier.

  • Owen chose the word guttering to describe the tears streaming down the face of the unfortunate man, a symptom of inhaling toxic gas.

Fourth Stanza

The speaker widens the issue by confronting the reader (and especially the people at home, far away from the war), suggesting that if they too could experience what he had witnessed, they would not be so quick to praise the war dead. They would be lying to future generations if they though that death on the battlefield was sweet.

  • Owen didn't hold back. His vivid imagery is quite shocking, his message direct and his conclusion sincere.

The last four lines are thought to have been addressed to one Jessie Pope, a children's writer and journalist at the time, whose published book Jessie Pope's War Poems included a poem titled The Call, an encouragement for young men to enlist and fight.

Language/Diction


Dulce et Decorum Est surprises from the start. The opening lines contain words such as bent, beggars, sacks, hags, cursed, haunting, trudge - this is the language of poverty and deprivation, hardly suitable for the glory of the battlefield where heroes are to be found.

Yet this is precisely what the poet intended. Figurative language fights with literal. This is no ordinary march. Most seem asleep, from exhaustion no doubt, suggesting that a dream world isn't too far distant, unlike the resting place they're headed for.

The second stanza's first line brings the reader directly in touch with the unfolding drama and, although these are soldiers, men (as well as old beggars and hags), the simple word boys seems to put everything into perspective.

Note the internal line by line assonance, for example:

double/under/cursed/sludge/haunting/turned/trudge.

And again with drunk/fumbling/clumsy/stumbling/under/plunges/guttering/flung/corrupted/lungs/cud/dulce, throughout the poem this is almost like the background rumbling of distant explosions.

Alliteration occurs in lines five, eleven and nineteen:

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

The iambic pentameter is dominant but occasional lines break with this rhythm - line sixteen in the third stanza - reflecting the strangeness of the situation.

outstripped Five-Nines refers to the type of shell being used, 5.9 calibre, which were not up to the speed of other shells used.

like a devil's sick of sin is a right in your face simile, whatever you think a devil looks like, one that has gone beyond the pale.

bitter as the cud is a term used in farming, where cud is the half digested food of ruminants which is chewed again to make it digestible. The suggestion is that the blood coming up from the lungs has to be chewed by the poor dying man. A sobering image. Note the first line of Owen's poem Anthem For Doomed Youth - What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

zest means enthusiasm.

ardent means passionate

The latin ending is perhaps a gentle reminder of many a slogan, many a motto and maxim held dear by clubs, military units, teams and families as an expression of belief and ideals. These are often displayed in latin which was of course the language of the ancient Romans.

Tone/Mood


From the start of this poem you are immersed in the atmosphere of war. These are the trenches of WWI, full of mud and death. Once optimistic, healthy soldiers have now been reduced to a miserable, exhausted gang who have little left to give.

It's a shocking environment into which the reader is taken - oppressive, dangerous and without any real hope.

The poet wants the reader to know that warfare is anything but glorious so paints a gloomy, realistic, human picture of life at the frontline. He leaves us in no doubt about his feelings.

Imagery


This poem is packed full of vivid images forged in the heat of battle, skilfully drawn by the young, keenly observant poet.

The scene is one of a group of soldiers making their weary way from the frontline towards our distant rest as bombs drop and lethal gas is released. Details are intimate and immediate, taking the reader right into the thick of trench war.

These men appear old but that is only an illusion. War has twisted reality which gradually turns surreal as the poem progresses. The speaker evokes a dream-like scenario, the green of the enveloping gas turning his mind to another element, that of water, and the cruel sea in which a man is drowning.

The descriptions become more intense as the drowning man is disposed of on a cart. All the speaker can do is compare the suffering to a disease with no known cure. The final image - sores on a tongue - hints at what the dying soldier himself might have said about the war and the idea of a glorious death.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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