The First World War was a time of great loss of life and bloodshed. Wilfred Owen, a soldier battling with the British Army, wrote the poem Dulce et Etiquette est to describe, perhaps to the public, the dreadful effects of participating and combating in the war. During the poem, he explains the consequences of a poison gas attack, and the injuries sustained by a soldier whom had breathed in the lethal substance. Owen utilizes gruesome imagery to strongly display in verse the dreadful death the soldier faces, in the trenches of France.
The poem Dulce et Decorum est is extensively considered as among the best war poems ever composed, and is a great example of an anti-war protest in the kind of poetry. The title of the poem is taken from an ode from a Roman theorist and author, released numerous hundreds of years prior to the poem. These Latin words are briefly translated into English as ‘it is sweet and right.
’ The usage of ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ in the title of the poem is essentially an usage of sarcasm, using a typical phrase in British Army culture at the time, to almost mock the idea that it is a sensible thing to do to die in battle, for your nation.
The first verse of the poem opens with the soldiers walking through the landscape of the trench warfare system, in the thick of what would be a raging battle. These two first lines show the conditions the soldiers faced out on the front line, cursing ‘through sludge.
’ After the battle, they ‘turn (their) backs’ on ‘the haunting flares’ and begin to slowly walk towards their ‘distant rest,’ an area where they may recuperate after long periods in the ferocious battle. In this section of the poem, Wilfred Owen describes the soldiers as ‘old beggars under sacks,’ and ‘hags.’ Both of these comparisons are presented in the form of separate similes. The effect that this creates on the reader is that of war being tiring and exhausting – as well as the toll that it takes on the soldiers’ mental and/or emotional state. This widely-known fact is documented in lines five and seven; ‘men marched asleep,’ and ‘drunk with fatigue,’ respectively. These uses of language suggest that even though they were constantly stressed and tired, the soldiers fighting were still able to make rational decisions, and could do tasks, even when they were in such a delusional state. This was probably because of the repetitive nature of their job.
The last line of verse one describes how the 5.9cal (calibre) ‘Five-Nines’ were out of range, as the soldiers trudged away from the guns. Owen uses words in verse one which could be described as very ‘ugly in texture.’ For example, as mentioned earlier, the use of words like ‘beggar’ and ‘hag’ dismiss the image of a fit, athletic, healthy soldier that most would expect to be on the battlefield, and replaces it with a strikingly contrasting one, halting the poem as the reader makes light of the awful situation of The Great War. Another word that Wilfred Owen used, and that I have decided to comment on, is the word blood-shod. Although not used often nowadays, in this poem it is used to describe the visual state of the soldiers, covered in blood. It seems a dehumanizing image, as they are crushed by the constant strains of battle. The first verse, like the second, is written in sonnet form, however the rhythm loosens towards the end of the first verse as it leads up to an important moment at the beginning of the second verse. That important moment is put somewhat sharply to the reader, as it shocks them, with a very clever use of dialogue.
The reason I think it is brilliant is because it jumps into the thick of the action, transitioning from the slow tempo of the end of battle (for that day!) to the panic and perhaps confusion of a poison-gas attack, all in just four words. Slight confusion can actually be perceived, as the ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ ensues, with the soldiers obviously struggling to fit ‘the clumsy helmets just in time.’ This ‘just in time’ part implies that everyone is okay, and has successfully put on their gas-mask before the gas started to work its chilling effects. However, one soldier unfortunately fails to apply his mask, as is told as he was ‘yelling out and stumbling…flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.’ The horrible sight is witnessed by the narrator, ‘dim, through the misty panes (of the mask) and thick green light,’ which is actually the hazy, slightly luminescent fluid that hangs around them, probably chlorine gas. It is described as a ‘green sea’ in the next line, and so I think that this is a reference to the huge area it would cover, blighting anyone who crossed within the vicinity.
The simile which compares the man’s actions to one who would be in ‘fire or lime’ is describing his desperate attempts – in vain – to help himself. Lime is a substance that would burn human tissue, much like acid. The narrator tells of how he ‘sees the man drowning’ and then of how he constantly dreams about the wretched being, ‘in all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’ The victim would have experienced a sensation likened to that of drowning, as the gas inflames the lungs and takes up the space that clean air would have took up, much like water. The helpless feeling of the narrator would have been there in all the men, for there was very little thing they could do to heal the sickened man, because of the limited resources and technology of the time. Instead, (the company) flings him ‘into the wagon’ to be taken and disposed of, effectively, as Owen quipped in another poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth, herded like cattle.
It is in this section that Wilfred Owen shows how the man was now experiencing his final moments, as the ‘white eyes (were writhing) in his face’ and ‘like a devil’s sick of sin.’ The hideous comparisons that follow are sure to live in the memory of anyone actually witnessing the event, and Owen captures them superbly (in literary terms) as he says ‘obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud.’ This is a very in-your-face image, showing the horrid substances issuing from the soldier’s mouth, as his lungs begin to completely disintegrate and he loses control of throat muscles. The descriptions of the soldier’s condition are aimed into shocking the reader, many of whom would be the British public, into turning against the war. This is shown as Wilfred addresses ‘my friend,’ in line 25.
This is actually Jessie Pope, who wrote many patriotic poems encouraging young men, much like Owen, to sign up and ‘do their duty.’ Owen was completely disgusted by the way war was portrayed towards the masses in Pope’s well-known poem Who’s for the Game? and wanted to change the opinions of the public and show them what war was really like, for the common, light infantry foot soldier. He says, ‘my friend, you would not tell with such high zest,’ meaning that Pope wouldn’t think the way she did if she knew the true extent of the suffering. To end the poem, Wilfred Owen uses a controversial and slightly outlandish term, lie. This is especially bizarre as it is criticizing the beliefs of at least 80% of Britons at the time, including the monarch, government and high-ranking officials in the military. To put it in context (literally) the ending goes: The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This means, in English:
The old Lie: it is sweet and right
To die for your country.
To conclude, I have a few more comments to make about the effect of the poem on the public. Owen always strongly believed that there was no glory or pride involved in dying at war. People are told they will be proud to fight, but this is actually all a propaganda scheme to recruit soldiers. In no better way could he have expressed this than in the ending to Dulce et Decorum est. People would be more touched by this poem, had it have been published at the time, not three years later, after Owen’s death. The soldiers are presented in general, as pieces of a toy set. They fight for higher ranking people, in wars that are not, in Owen’s beliefs, fought for the benefit of the people. And obviously, it is the low-paid, life-risking foot soldier that is affected most.