Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est is a forlorn poem of his experience in the First World War. Owen recounts his story as he and fellow infantrymen march ‘knock-kneed, coughing like hags’ across the wasteland that is the battle front(line 2). Most of the focus is on the exhaustion from battle, but changes attention when ‘hoots’ of gas-shells rain down on their position. Weariness quickly turns to ‘An ecstasy of fumbling’ (line 9) as the soldiers fit their gas masks, but one soldier is not fast enough. Owen then relates his first hand tale and demise of the footman chocking to death from mustard gas.
The reader is forced to witness this horrid death and ask ourselves; ‘Dulce et descorum est,/Pro patria mori’ (line 27-28). Lines 1-8 are used to describe a scene of war-torn men on a forced march across a wasteland. Such phrases as, ‘old beggars’, and ‘coughing like hags’ gives the reader an idea of what condition that the infantrymen are in. Such phrases denote a negative image as to associate the infantrymen as vagrants in poor physical condition. With those who ‘lost their boots’ now find themselves ‘blood-shod,’ rather than being bare foot.
The word shod is an old English term for shoeing a horse, again negative connotation of the infantrymen as sub-human beings. Lines 5 and 7 give depth to the state of despondency that general infantrymen are in. Owen chooses the phrase ‘Drunk with fatigue’ to show the depth of exhaustion the infantrymen are experiencing. To be drunk, as to be intoxicated with the absolute exhaustion; denoting fatigue as some drug that overwhelms the senses and coordination. They do not give credence to the reality they are in until a gas shell sends them into an ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ for a gas mask. Ecstasy’ is used not to give the connotation of delight and happiness, but rather the stark contrast of frenzy. Lines 9 and 11 end with ‘fumbling’ and ‘stumbling’, respectively, to give depth the infantrymen’s state of condition. Later, in lines 14 and 16, an association is draw between the engulfing gas and a man drowning. Owen depicts a man in a green sea drowning (line 14) to be later plunging at him (line 16); both giving the allusion between being engulfed in water or noxious gas. Again, in line 17, Owen asks the reader to ‘pace.. in some smothering dream’; a reoccurring theme of being deprived of air.
The second stanza utilizes the most guttural connotation of such words as to describe the corpse. From the ‘gargling…froth-corrupted lungs’, to the ‘vile, incurable sores’, Owen wants to galvanize the true wickedness of war. The reader is told of how gas can ‘corrupt lungs’ and put ‘sores on innocent tongues’. This contrast is vital because it depicts how war can taint that which is most holy. In saying that the corpse’s face hung ‘like a devil’s sick of sin,’ gives yet another reference between evil and war, but it has another meaning.
To imply the devil would be overwhelmed with such amount of evil implies that one cannot grasp the horrors of war. The poem then ends with a sort of thesis statement that to die for one’s country is neither right nor sweet. Dulce begins as a slow trudge of despondent soldiers, to a fanatic race for safety, then a slow, visceral portrayal of life being wrenched away from man, opposed to the titles suggestion for war hysteria and propaganda. But the main theme is not to just illustrate the dregs of war but to give the reader the truth of war. He makes the reader place themselves on the front line to look death and despair in the eye.
Courtney from Study Moose
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