In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” the narrator is Owen himself. The story tells the tale of one particular day when he has to watch one of his fellow soldiers gruesomely suffocate to death from inhalation of chlorine gas. Owen paints the soldiers as not necessarily heroic, but rather more desperate and terrified, “like old beggars under sacks,” (Owen line 1), also “coughing like hags” (Owen line 2). I feel that Owen portrays his fellow soldiers this way to try and illustrate the point that these people are terribly afraid of death and are faced with it every day they live. They also aren’t this indestructible super human killing machine, but rather a group of terrified 20 year olds who just want to go home. Owen speaks about the need to press on regardless of how bad it gets: “But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind,” (Owen line 6). This illustrates how bad the circumstances are for the soldiers fighting, and goes against the idealistic image of what a battle should look like or how a soldier should appear after a battle. The way Owen tells this story shows that his view of the war was that the soldiers have no comprehension of a righteous cause or a meaning behind their sacrifice. Specifically, the rhyming, tone, and imagery will all help to demonstrate that point.
Owen uses the rhyming in the poem to help reflect his own personal beliefs about war onto the reader. The rhymes that Owen chooses are particularly useful for finding out what his message to the reader here is. He uses rhymes such as “sludge – trudge” (Owen lines 2 and 4), “blind – behind” (Owen lines 6 and 8), “fumbling – stumbling” (Owen lines 9 and 11), and perhaps the rhyme that is most telling to Owen’s underwriting theme is when he rhymes “drowning – drowning” (Owen lines 14 and 16). This last rhyme using the anaphora is chosen solely for the purpose of drawing the reader’s attention to the word and further emphasizing the vividness of which Owen witnessed a friend of his suffocate in front of him, and then they had to carry his corpse with them along their travels. The repetition of the word makes it more important and draws more attention to it. The rhyme scheme is regular a,b,a,b,c,d,c,d,e,f,e,f and the lines are end-stopped.
Furthermore, the sounds themselves of the rhymes are cacophonous in nature and are helpful for showing the reader Owen’s emotional mindset at the time this is all happening. The short vowel sounds in the rhymes of sludge – trudge (Owen lines 2 and 4), fumbling – stumbling (Owen lines 9 and 11), and blood – cud (Owen lines 21 and 23) are meant to help portray a somber mood void of any heroic undertones. This is again done for the purpose of helping to show these soldiers as lost, terrified young men struggling to survive, and not fighting for glory or love of one’s nation. The shortness of the rhymes of sludge and trudge gives the reader an idea of the hurried pace at which the soldiers are walking and talking. According to Daniel Moran, ” -“trudges” along in the reader’s ear as the men “trudge” toward their unattainable relief. (Also note the rhyming of “trudge” with “sludge”, which connects the action of trudging with the terrain.)” (Moran). Moran here makes the case that Owen is attempting to tie the setting into the action and connect the two, thus aiding the mental picture the reader has of the scene at hand.
The tone can also be analyzed to sense the author’s negative outlook on war. Focusing on the two line stanza in the middle of the poem where Owen describes the death of his maskless comrade in the gas attack is a prime example. “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight. He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” (Owen lines 15 and 16). According to John Hughes, a writer for The Explicator, “This recurrent nightmare is the climax of the poem’s tendency, in its first half, toward an unfolding of the poet’s interiority, his personal responses, amid the texture of events it describes. So, from the opening line, the impersonal world of high literary culture, patriotism, and upstanding soldierly endeavor conjured in the title (and to a degree in the early dedication) yields with a jolt to the antithetical world notated with such feeling in the first stanza.” (Hughes). Basically Hughes is stating that in his opinion the entire poem is taking place inside Owen’s nightmares while he sleeps at night after the war is over. And in line 15 and 16 Owen is stating how he is forever tormented by the mental image of his fellow soldier and friend in combat being killed in front of his eyes.
This work also can be said to contain a great deal of imagery for the reader to delve into. Each one providing a horrible, gruesome firsthand look into what it would have been like to see the battle of World War 1 from the front lines. In lines 4-6, Owen writes “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;” (Owen lines 4-6). These lines early on in the poem give the reader a sense of what the terrain is like and what the men are experiencing just to stay alive. The soldiers are not being portrayed as conquering heroes riding across the countryside, defeating all you stand in their path, as such was the popular way to write war poetry at the time Dulce et Decorum Est was written. According to Kimberly Lutz writing for Poetry for Students, “This sensibility of the cost of war to both the dead and surviving soldier stands in stark contrast to the types of poetry with which Owen’s readers would have been familiar.
Take for instance, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” a famous poem by the Victorian era’s most famous poet (and poet laureate) Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Written in 1854 in response to a newspaper account of a military mistake that sent hundreds of men to die battling the Russians in the Crimean War, the poem acknowledges the awful cost of war. However, the reader learns only that “horse and hero fell.” The bloodshed, the smells, the confusion that go along with battle are not depicted.” (Lutz). This seems to be yet another reason for Owen feeling the need to portray his side of the story of war ever so vividly. The popular thing at the time was for poets to paint war in a positive light and fail to mention the horrible aspects of it. Owen saw these things firsthand and wasn’t going to remain silent about them.
“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a powerful work by a very young Wilfred Owen. He is speaking from experience and first hand traumas which help add relevancy to the work. The meter was regular for the most part, helping to echo the military uniformity of march and speech. While also irregular at other times of high excitement and scramble, showing that even if you have been conditioned to behave a certain way, your survival instincts take hold once your life depends on it. The work isn’t quite as polished as it could have been, perhaps it could have benefited from some final edits. However, Owen wasn’t just writing this from afar, he was involved in battle, and he believed what he was saying. This can be proven by the fact that Wilfred Owen was killed on the battlefield with 1 week remaining in World War.
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