Dulce Et Decorum

Analysis - Dulce Et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen #

From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying: ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into:

Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”.

I. Context & Subject Matter #

A poem of uncompromising conviction written while Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart in October 1917. It recounts one of many mustard gas attacks introduced on the French in WWI. Owen was sent home to recover from shell shock, partially due to recurring nightmares following a gas attack.

Benjamín Labatut, in When We Cease to Understand the World describes the first gas attack in WWI:

“The first gas attack in history overwhelmed the French troops entrenched near the small town of Ypres, in Belgium. When they awoke on the morning of Thursday, April 22, 1915, the soldiers saw an enormous greenish cloud creeping towards them across no-man’s-land. Twice as high as a man and as dense as winter fog, it stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, as far as the eye could see. The leaves withered on the trees as it passed, birds fell dead from the sky; it tinged the pastureland a sickly metallic colour. A scent like pineapple and bleach filled the throats of the soldiers when the gas reacted with the mucus in their lungs, forming hydrochloric acid. As the cloud pooled in the trenches, hundreds of men fell to the ground convulsing, choking on their own phlegm, yellow mucus bubbling in their mouths, their skin turning blue from lack of oxygen. Then everything was quiet again. In a while it had cleared and we walked past the empty gas bottles. What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, rats and mice were everywhere. The smell of the gas was still in the air. It hung on the few bushes which were left. When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to breathe. Some had shot themselves.

Its didactic message is directed squarely at us; civilians.

He accuses us of of sending young men to senseless futile deaths. One has to understand how revolutionary this was in light of the Victorian understanding of patriotism and courage.

The poem is directed at civilians so they can appreciate the reality and brutality of war - in contrast to the illusory clean cut images of soldiers they have been fed.

For the British, war was about romance and gallantry. They liked nothing more than a carefully pressed uniform, a parade ground and a razor-sharp fighting line. At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight. The other ten were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms. This makes a mockery of the descriptive octave of this faux sonnet.

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 out 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
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.

Wilfred Owen


II. Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.*

This is a powerful indictment of those who propagandise the glory and glamour of War. The beginning is full of soft language with a sympathetic but graphic depiction of the conditions of the soldiers diametrically opposed to the projected image of clean cut upright soldiers.

It is the latter part of the poem where the poet refuses to “pull his punches” and in compelling tough, harsh and accusatory language lashes out at those who glorify or glamorise soldiers and warfare in general.

Onomatopoeicknock kneed” or “hoots”, evocative “haunted shells”

The 8 (th) line:

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.”

Was crossed out and replaced with an unfinished:

“Of gas shells dropping softly behind”

While the original is technically more precise, (referring to 5.9 calibre shells) the replacement works more effectively in sound.

After the soothing inclusive (but mocking) “My friend”, the persona hits us with the uncompromising “The old Lie”, capitalised for emphasis and to identify it as an accepted maxim.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #

It is the waste of life that seemed to be Owen’s greatest concern. In ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ he firmly rejects the “old Lie” that it is sweet and decorous to die for one’s country.

This poem attempts to debunk or de-mythologise romantic images of war and present a graphically realistic depiction of the gruesome barbarity of the consequences of misusing modern warfare’s inventions. It tries to present an immersive picture of the conditions under which men were forced to fight.

The poem was dedicated to a Miss Jessie Pope, a poetess writing patriotic war poetry. It is obvious that Owen is discrediting the propaganda used to arouse the patriotism to glorify and glamorise wartime experiences.

That glamorisation continues to this day by modern war mongers:

Marilyn Lake, a professor of history at La Trobe University, has written extensively on the militarisation of Australian History. She asserts that a business of memory-making was established from 1996 to foster an already fiercely determined enterprise to commemorate and memorialise all aspects of Australia’s involvement in overseas war escapades.

Since 1996, the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent millions on inculcating history lessons to “ensure that Australia’s wartime heritage is preserved and the community better appreciates the significance of wartime experiences to our development as a nation”.

Already since the 1920’s the RSL had also spend millions keeping the memory of Gallipoli alive:

Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.

The adverse effects of this militarisation, besides the glorification and sanctification of war, is that it transplants other contributions to nation building.

When participation in foreign wars becomes the basis of national identity, it requires the forgetting or marginalising of other narratives, experiences and values. The Anzac myth requires us to forget gender and racial exclusions, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia; to forget that at Gallipoli we fought for “empire” not the nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.

Marilyn Lake: http://theage.com.au/opinion

Many of the same developments occurred in America during this time, but the cruel irony of this militarisation is that the leaders who claim to fight wars for peace and freedom shamelessly enacted legislation that severely limits our freedoms, all in the name of the “war on terror”.

During President Hoover’s rule, veterans of WWI, demand money promised for time served. When denied, they camped out for five weeks. Hoover declares the veterans a communist front. Tanks and infantry men attacked the veterans with 54 injured and 134 arrested.

Australian’s only lost 37 soldier fatalities in Afghanistan, howver more than 400 returned soldiers have committed suicide after returning home. We spend more money commemorating the dead than supporting the survivors. No one survives war; especially the survivors.

When propaganda becomes brain-washing it is time to expose it by proclaiming it from the house-tops.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Owen begins by describing a graphic war scene that starkly contradicts our illusory image of the clean cut, neatly uniformed erect soldier and instead presents us with “old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed coughing like hags” - hardly the image the war propagandists would wish to present. The description gets worse, not only are the men’s boots not polished – some are not wearing any at all but “blood-shod” The battle fatigue is emphasised by the ambiguous adjective “drunk”.

The soldiers are jolted into action by the sounds of gas shells “dropped behind”. This stimulates a flurry of activity “an ecstasy of fumbling” for those who had one and could get them on in time. The pathos of the poem focuses on those who either had not been issued with one or hadn’t managed to get the “clumsy helmets” on in time. The action is conveyed by a cumulation of verbs: fumbling, fitting, yelling, stumbling, flound’ring, drowning, plunges, guttering, choking, and drowning.’

It is the recurring image that haunts the persona, especially in his “smothering dreams” suggesting he is suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Owen was sent home to recuperate.* *

The poet now directs his message directly and unequivocally at us by using the second person.

………………you* too could pace*

If you could hear…..
My friend you would not tell with such high zest…

The poet uses a variety of the five senses, sound: “gas shells”, sight:I saw him drowning”, smell: “froth corrupted lungs”, **taste: “**bitter as the cud”, touch: “incurable sores on innocent tongues”.


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,
Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

His graphic description of the troops and his rejection of the glories of war is contrasted with the positive ceremonial presentation of soldiers on parade grounds with their upright straight backs neat uniforms, polished buttons and boots. Instead we have:

“Bent double, like beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,

Instead of marching, the soldiers:

limped on, blood shod”

The quasi-oxymoron of an “ecstasy of fumbling” can be justified by the fact that not all soldiers had been issued with “clumsy helmets”.

The intimacy of the poem is created by the use of personal pronouns;

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,

There is a desperate plea by the persona for us to empathise and share his pain.

One must be moved by a line like “the blood Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs”. These negative images are the truth of war for Owen and one that future audiences need to consider.

His nightmarish recurring memories of the scene use powerful derogative verbs and descriptors:

“yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring….

…..Wagon that we flung him in…..

….white eyes writhing in his face,

         *.....the blood*  

Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores…..

The impact of the verb “flung” registers the despair, futility and hopelessness of their predicament arousing empathy.

It is the naked term “Lie” that slaps us in the face; uncompromising, confronting but undeniable.

Was Wilfred Owen aware of this quote?

“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.” – Rudyard Kipling

VI. Evaluation: #

This is one of Owen’s most powerful poems dispelling the romantic idea of war. Some feel it is his best poem, while others see it as too didactic or preaching; not subtle enough.

Some critics have detected a mocking tone in the poem, while others maintain it retains a respect for us.

Here is Mike Carlton from Sydney Morning Herald’s News Review evaluation of the poem:

In the way of things, Anzac Day has pretty much become Anzac Week. As I get older I grow more melancholy at the thought of it. The remembrance of courage and mateship is good and right, but I fear, increasingly, that the flags and bands and florid speechifying serve to conceal the horrors of war from younger generations.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” wrote the Roman poet Horace. “It is sweet and proper to die for your country.” It was all right for him: he died in bed at the age of 56. That ringing aphorism, though, has been flaunted ever since to exalt the slaughter of young men in battle.

It took centuries for another writer to explode the myth. Wilfred Owen, the great British poet of the First World War, took the words for the title of a searing poem about a soldier gassed on the Western Front in 1917:

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.

Owen himself was killed in France on November 4, 1918, just a week - almost to the hour - before the Armistice. I think of his poem when April 25 comes around and I hear some blowhard civic worthy blathering on about the “supreme sacrifice” or “the fallen” or “our glorious dead”.

Most of them haven’t a clue what they are talking about. There is nothing glorious about death in war. I saw it as a correspondent in Vietnam and know that it is brutal and infinitely disgusting. The truth is hideous.

It is to have your guts ripped out by shrapnel in No Man’s Land, or to slowly drown in a torpedoed warship, or to be burnt alive in a shot-down bomber or - in our own time - to be blown to pieces by a jungle booby-trap or an improvised explosive device on some road in Afghanistan. No glory in that.

And soldiers do not die with a patriotic slogan on their lips. My late father-in-law, who fought with the Black Watch at Monte Cassino in 1944 and later with the Australian Army in Malaya, always maintained that a man’s last words were most often a cry for the mother who bore him. No glory there either. Only unbearable sorrow.

There must be ways of telling our children all this, but I do not know what they are. I despair that our political leaders these days so willingly lie about their reasons for committing us to futile wars and attempt to justify the inevitable deaths with obscene banalities about “fulfilling the mission”.

It is the ultimate betrayal. Mike Carlton SMH 20 April 2013