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"Dulce et Decorum Est": Unvarnished Truth of War

Throughout history, wars have had an enormous impact on humanity. World War I, also referred to as the Great War, which lasted from July 1914 to November 1918, is only one example. Yet, its importance should not be overlooked, given that it is one of the first global conflicts. Edmund Blundell, who was an Army Chaplain during World War I, describes the Great War as the proverbial bolt from the blue (Fletcher, 2014). This conflict cost a great deal of lives throughout the world, and its effects lingered for an extended period of time. It did not only damage countries materially, but also inflicted trauma on their citizens. Wilfred Owen, a leading English poet and soldier in World War I, was just one of these countless individuals. As the war dragged into its third year, poems penned by fighting soldiers started to gain interest (Norgate, 1989). Nowadays as well, in order to understand the historical context of this conflict, reading poetry written in the Great War era is quite widespread. Analyzing "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen is an excellent way to comprehend the brutal reality of World War I and the suffering of the soldiers who fought in it.


In the very last week of World War I, Wilfred Owen, soldier and English poet, was killed at the age of 25 by German machine gunners. His poems, such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est", which were published posthumously and brought to life the physical and mental trauma of a soldier, made him well-known after death. He starts his creative journey after he meets Siegfried Sassoon, a well-known war poet, whom he is already keen to get introduced to. They met at Craiglockhart in August 1917. “In Sassoon, Owen found a kindred spirit, someone who was like-minded about the war and could provide him with a model for writing poems forged from his experiences at the front lines” (Benz, 2018, p.3). When he started writing poems inspired by discussions Sassoon and he had, he wrote "Dulce et Decorum Est" and sent a draft to his mother, calling it "a gas poem". In the edited version, the current title, which simply means “it is sweet and fitting”, was added. The title makes it sound like the poem will deal with patriotism and love of war, however, the last lines of the poem prove that that is the exact opposite of what Owen intends to convey.



Figure 1: "Over the Top". 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (Nash, 1918).

Sassoon taught Owen the value of irony and the use of vernacular language in his poetry and "it was the writing of poetry about the war which functioned as his most effective therapy and which enabled Owen to reconstruct a coherent voice that allowed for his return to the front, where he met his death in November." (Hipp, 2002, p.2). Thereby, his style of poetry formed, and he penned "Dulce et Decorum Est"—he wrote the first draft while he was in Craiglockhart—in which he discusses trauma carried by a soldier. The poem, like his other great works, was published posthumously in a publication of Owen’s short collection of poems, and was edited by Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, an English writer. In the poem, he illustrates the brutal struggle of soldiers in war and witnesses the deaths of fellow soldiers. In the third line of the poem, Owen mentions “haunting flares” that soldiers see when they turn their backs; this most likely refers to the German tactic of marching fire, also referred to as walking fire, which is a type of suppressive fire, and thus, this poem depicts the soldiers' disguised fear of gunfire and dying in combat.


Michael Williams, exhibition scholar and associate at Jesus College, Cambridge University, points out the achievement of the poet in “the coherence of an unedited version of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' not only through the development of very powerful individual images but through a very careful patterning of the dominant relationship between physical and moral corruption” (1990, p.8.) Initially, there is loss of vision—Owen states that soldiers are so exhausted that they start to lose their sight. The poem also follows an auditory pattern— the soldiers are deafened and completely unaware of the sound of deadly poison gas shells falling immediately behind them. Throughout the poem, the mental and physical burdens of combat are so extreme that at some point, soldiers start feeling drunk from tiredness. At the end, readers witness moral corruption when the poet mentions the big old lie of the phrase "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country" and society's fallacy of romanticizing war, when in reality, it is brutal and causes the soldiers to suffer physical and psychological problems.


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 (Owen, 1920)

Figure 2: "Dulce et Decorum Est" (Haizeel, 2010).

In the lines above, soldiers scramble to put on their gas masks barely in time as someone yells out a sudden alert about hazardous gas, yet one of them is incapable of getting his mask on. In this poem, Owen primarily uses dark imagery to convey his experiences. The war poet initially employs the past to illustrate the death of the man who was unable to put on a gas mask that he compares to drowning; afterwards, he switches to the present and portrays his traumatization through the imagery of seeing a bad dream of the same incident. In the last verse, Owen addresses the reader in the second person "you" and gives various examples of the ferocious battles of the Great War with the aim of pushing the audience to empathize with the soldiers. The poet's goal is to convey to the reader the brutality of the war and the falsehood of romanticized patriotism in Roman poet Horace's ancient dictum "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" in praise of an honourable death in battle.


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. (Owen, 1920)

The last line of the poem carries the most significance since this well-known dictum, meaning "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country", encourages society's false idealization of war in the name of patriotism. Throughout the poem, Owen aims to portray the war through the eyes of a soldier, explaining that reality is not what it is perceived to be. He points out that society would not use the same old lie so easily if they were in the place of the soldiers who fought in World War I. The poet is well aware of the fact that the readers cannot have the same experiences as his fellow soldiers did in the war. Paul Norgate indicates "Owen's repeated use of puns and similes suggests how the 'meaning' of war continually slides away, eludes definition" (1990, p.8). Thereby, the repeated conditional “if” signifies a baffled recognition that what is desired, which is common recognition that idealized war is actually a challenging, almost insurmountable reality, seems impossible.

Figure 3: "Illustration for a poem by Wilfred Owen on WWI 'Dulce et Decorum Est'" (Kanjilal, 2014)

Wilfred Owen uses his mastery of words and eloquence excellently in order to instill awareness in the reader of the unvarnished truth of World War I. The poem's final stanza has frequently been misinterpreted, leading to allegations that the author lacks affection for his native country. However, in his essay, Anderson D. Araujo, professor and Head of the Department of Languages and World Literatures at the University of British Columbia, refers to editor and critic Tim Kendall's introduction to the Oxford anthology of poetry of the First World War and quotes: "'Dulce Et Decorum Est' ought not to be labeled as 'an anti-war manifesto' but as 'anti-pro-war poetry'" (2014, p.4). Owen opposes the idealization of war and aims to reveal the reality of war by using various imagery in his poetry.



Bibliographical References

Araujo, A. D. (2014). Jessie Pope, Wilfred Owen, and the politics of “pro patria mori” in World War I poetry. Media, War & Conflict, 7(3), 326–341. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26001043


Benz, S. (2018). The poet as rhetor: A reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Journal of Modern Literature, 41(3), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.2979/jmodelite.41.3.01


Fletcher, A. (2014). Patriotism, the Great War and the decline of Victorian manliness. History, 99(1 (334)), 40–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24430110


Hipp, D. (2002). “By degrees regain[ing] cool peaceful air in wonder”: Wilfred Owen’s war poetry as psychological therapy. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 35(1), 25–49. https://doi.org/10.2307/1315317


Norgate, P. (1989). Wilfred Owen and the soldier poets. The Review of English Studies, 40(160), 516–530. http://www.jstor.org/stable/517098


Norgate, P. (1990). Soldiers’ dreams: popular rhetoric and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Critical Survey, 2(2), 208–215. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555530


Owen, W. (1920). Dulce et Decorum Est. The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est


Williams, M. (1990). Wilfred Owen: a poet re-institutionalised. Critical Survey, 2(2), 194–202. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555528


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Dix, O. (1924). Stormtroopers Advance Under a Gas Attack [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stormtroopers_Advance_Under_a_Gas_Attack


Figure 1: Nash, J. (1918). "Over The Top". 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20015


Figure 2: Haizeel. (2010) Dulce et Decorum Est [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

https://www.deviantart.com/haizeel/art/Dulce-et-Decorum-est-153585428


Figure 3: Kanjilal, N, S. (2014) Illustration for a poem by Wilfred Owen on WWI "Dulce et Decorum Est" [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.behance.net/gallery/19178901/Readers-Digest-India











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