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The poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ was written by Wilfred Owen during World War One. It’s a very anti-war poem and portrays an unseen version of war, the horrible part of it. It was one of the many poems that were not published until after the war as it hardly belonged amongst all the smiling soldiers in the propaganda posters.
It centers around the retelling of a gas attack – one of the battlefield methods that were common in Owen’s day – and how a soldier didn’t get his helmet on in time.
The title ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is a part of a common phrase that was tossed around a lot during Owen’s time, which loosely translated into English means, ‘It is sweet and fitting’.
The soldier’s death is barely ‘sweet and fitting’ which is why the title is very misleading and ironic. The poem consists of four stanzas. Owen starts the poem by describing the state of the soldiers, again very different than the clean, healthy men in the posters. It seems to the reader that every aspect of the soldiers was damaged – physically, mentally and spiritually.
The simile Owen uses ‘…like old beggars’ in my opinion is one of the very effective images in the poem. It could be interpreted as the soldiers feeling betrayed, deserted by their own people, put into a battlefield they didn’t sign up for, like the beggars who feel ignored and forgotten, balancing on a thin line between life and death.
Two metaphors that caught my eye were ‘Men marched asleep’ and ‘Drunk with fatigue’ which both strongly indicate that the soldiers were on auto-pilot, not in control of their actions, almost like robots or zombies, neither dead or alive. Men marched asleep’ is a metaphorical paradox because you can’t march while you’re asleep, and ‘Drunk with fatigue’ is a metaphor where you can’t literally be drunk with fatigue, but it implies that the soldiers are so tired that they are powerless and weak, relating to the effects of alcohol where the mind is weak and irrational. In the second stanza the poem moves on to describe a gas attack, and the reader is dragged into its midst.
The soldiers struggle to get the helmets on, forcing the reader to empathize with the soldiers, so young and sprightly with a long life ahead of them, but fighting to stay alive in a matter of seconds. ‘An ecstasy of fumbling’. This metaphor illustrates to the reader the human instinct to survive, how nothing is more important than fitting the helmet on and the panic and rush of adrenaline the soldier feels. Yet one man, representing the worst of the gas, didn’t get it on in time. Owen tries to relate the gas attack to something people knew and in this case he used the metaphor ‘…like a man in fire or lime’.
This allows the reader to feel the soldier’s excruciating pain. He clarifies the situation even more by describing the death by gas as drowning in water, an extended metaphor that continues into the third and fourth stanzas. After that with the third stanza, a mere two lines, Owen continues with the metaphor. He turns the attack into a nightmare that haunted him forever after it occurred ‘In all my dreams…’ He could also be using the word ‘dreams’ to indicate that what happened is too harsh for reality, too hard for him to comprehend.
He may also feel guilty as he describes himself as ‘helpless’, another reference to drowning, where the observer is in a state of shock and helplessness at first. The three alliterative words at the end of the stanza ‘…guttering, choking, drowning’ help the reader understand the metaphor more and empathize with his pain. And the final fourth stanza continues the tale, exposing even more gory details of the attack, its aftermath and its sheer ferocity, again leaving deep impacts on the reader.
Owen begins by addressing the reader, inviting him/her into his ‘smothering dreams’ – indicating that the nightmares he had he couldn’t escape and they were suffocating him – and asking them to walk in his shoes ‘…behind the wagon we flung him in’, the verb ‘flung’ I think very disturbing, implying that the soldier who had had a whole life ahead of him was just another lifeless body, worthless to them now. And then comes another strong metaphor ‘…like a devil’s sick of sin’ which Owen uses to describe the soldier’s dead face.
It could suggest that, like a devil realizing his mistakes at the door to hell and wishes to escape it at the last minute, the soldier when at the border between life and death begins to wish he could escape the battlefield and return to his home and to his loved ones. But it is too late. He also uses words that create an unimaginably horrid scene and create a negative atmosphere as a whole: blood, corrupted, obscene, cancer and bitter. One of the best metaphors in the poem includes ‘…incurable sores on innocent tongues’, a simple phrase that shows how large the effects of war are, and how eternal they are on the young and innocent.
Finally the last four lines in the poem. Owen addresses the reader directly, calling him/her (I’m sticking with a him, if you don’t mind) ‘my friend’, and telling him that if only he would experience what he had, he would never tell the ‘old Lie’ – capitalized L personifies this phrase, as if it was something human, some evil to the point where it is not just words – ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ – the completed phrase meaning ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for your country. ’ The completion of the phrase provides a stark contrast between the poem and the impression the title makes.
There is nothing sweet and fitting about dying for your country. In an indirect way, Owen is shaming all the ‘liars’ and putting the weight of the death of all innocent soldiers on their shoulders. There is no specific structure to the poem. It starts off in an organized way, representing the seemingly ordered army, marching in lines and separated into regiments and so on. Then it starts to tumble into chaos, into how war really is. Disorder consumes the poem as the pace in stanza two is quickened by the use of short words and exclamation marks.
It is also in the present tense, dragging the reader into the action, followed by a two-lined stanza, which is artistically beneficial as it stands out more and has more impact on the reader. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD and so on. Throughout the poem, it is very obvious that Wilfred Owen is anti-war. This has some irony in it as Owen died in combat, fighting for his country. It seems that he is torn between patriotism and the futility of war. And that I guess is how every soldier feels about war. You kill your enemies, not because you’re right and they’re wrong – everyone’s wrong in war.
No, you kill them to defend your country, your home. To defend your friends and family. To live free. I loved the poem. The bluntness of it invokes revulsion and hatred towards every aspect of war. I loved how Owen is shoving the truth of war into the faces of the naive population, who don’t know its reality or pretend it’s all fine and dandy. The tone of outrage and disgust with war (and with those who support it) is sustained by the speaker’s invitation to the reader to watch—something the reader clearly is not naturally inclined to do.
It’s as if the poet is holding the horror of war up to our faces and making us look. Personally, I share Owen’s confusion. I would defend my country; I would die for it if I had to, because you just can’t sit back and watch people you are connected to some way or another die. But I also think that war is useless, that it’s a never ending cycle of keeping the Earth’s population under control. It affects everyone, few in a good way, most in a bad one. But I believe that like in Pandora’s Box hope came out after everything else did, I think there is still some hope left for the human race, that we aren’t all doomed – yet.