Laurence Binyon wrote ‘ For the Fallen’ in 1914, at the beginning of the Great War, while Wilfred Owen composed his ‘ Dulce et Decorum Est’ in 1917-18, by the end of the conflict. This difference in time means that there might be inconsistencies in the portrayal of the war, due to the changing perspectives of the fighting, which in turn would provoke irregularities in the purpose, style and nature of the two poems.
In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Owen tries to prove us that war has no mighty purpose behind it and that it is just a waste of lives. He describes one soldier dying with verbs such as ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ and gives an account of the blood which came ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’. This strikingly visceral portrayal of loss of life suggests that he sees nothing spiritual or divine in the sacrifices that the soldiers make for their country.
He prefers to depict the experience of the war as true and cruel as it is in reality without sparing the reader. In the poem we are informed about two deaths. The first is due to harsh conditions, when some soldiers ‘dropped behind’, while the second is caused by lethal gas that one of the soldier inhales. In both of these cases, the young men’s deaths didn’t contribute in any way to the protection of their country and they weren’t even fighting when they passed away. This suggests that war is just a waste of human life which won’t secure England’s peace.
In ‘For the Fallen’, Binyon tells us that the soldiers have ‘fallen in the cause of the free’, thus suggesting that they try to make the world a better place, that they fight for something good. This gives war a mighty purpose and to the deaths meaning. This idea of ‘for the greater good’ is further highlighted in the phrase ‘a glory that shines upon our tears’, which conveys the idea that the sacrifices of the soldiers contribute to the welfare of society and that’s why everybody should be proud of those who are fighting.
It is clear that the two poems depict the meaning and purpose of the war very differently. While Owen indicates that war is a meaningless and cruel waste, Binyon tries to cast a better light upon the deaths of the soldiers, giving their sacrifices a higher significance and thus implying that war – with all its faults – is for the greater good.
In Owen’s poem the soldiers going to the fight are ‘like old beggars under sacks’, ‘coughing like hags’ ‘blood shot’ and ‘drunk with fatigue’. ‘Many had lost their boots’, implying that they cannot face the harsh conditions of the war and that they are even unable to look after their essential belongings. The description of bootless ‘beggars’ is humiliating, while their tiredness and the hag simile suggests that there are lethargic and hopeless. Their physical appearance isn’t attractive either. All these depict the soldiers as tired, old and humiliated men who are unable to face life and are completely incompetent in war.
However, in Binyon’s version the soldiers ‘went with songs to the battle’, suggesting their fearlessness and gaiety. ‘They were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow’. This phrase conveys an admiration for the almost divine soldiers who seem to be the incarnation of some hero from a child’s tale – powerful, handsome and determined men who save the world. This image of glorious warriors seems to be taken out of a happy-end story – rather than the realism – to satisfy the audience.
Once again the dissimilarity between the two accounts is obvious. Owen sticks to the merciless truth, while Binyon sees something beyond the harsh experience of the war. Actually, he seems to use the brutality of the fighting and the deaths to emphasise the greatness and divinity of the soldiers.
In ‘Dulce et decorum Est’ soldiers die either to the harsh conditions of the war, or due to poisonous gas. The soldier who experienced the later, plunges at the nearest men choking and drowning – an image of a helpless, suffering person. Unlike the soldiers in Owen’s poem, in ‘For the Fallen’, the fighters ‘fell with their faces to the foe’, – not to their companions – in the middle of the battle, fearless and brave. The determination which they seem to possess suggests that they believe that their deaths have a higher purpose. This encourages the reader and the mourning families to have faith that their loved ones’ lives weren’t wasted, but contrarily represented a salvage for humanity.
It seems that the greatest difference between the two poems lies in the way they portray death and their significance.
In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ the dying soldier’s face is ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’ with ‘writhing eyes’. The phrase implies that the soldiers committed the greatest sins, most probably killing, which this altered the way they viewed life forever. They seem to be ‘sick’ not only of the war, but of the persons in which the war transformed them, into devils.
The ‘writhing eyes’ suggests the violent ending that they had, and it possibly implies that they never found peace. The mention of the devil together with this, insinuates that they will never go to heaven, but rather to hell. The phrase ‘incurable sores on innocent tongues’ further emphasises the idea that the experience of the war severely damaged their character in a negative and irredeemable way. ‘Incurable sores’ implies that the greatest wounds were not physical, but psychological, and this might be the reason why they will never find peace, not even the moment they die.
In ‘For the Fallen’ death is ‘august and royal’, thus dignified and splendid, something rather positive and good. This is because the sacrificed soldiers’ songs go to up ‘into immortal spheres’, suggesting the place where the dead soldiers found peace. This idea is repeated throughout the whole poem. The phrase ‘they shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old’ implies that the deceased soldiers are divine, angelic and eternal beings. Due to their valiant death, their gift is that of eternity, as if their vibrant, determined and brave souls were immortalised, and thus they will be forever young, forever in the best of their condition. The deceased soldier’s march in the ‘heavenly plains’ is ‘as the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness’. ‘Heavenly’ and ‘stars’ suggest that the divine fighters will always light upon the mortal humans, guiding and protecting them. ‘Time of our darkness’ refers to the war, and how young men, in the hardest periods of their life, left their homes to save their loved ones, as they will always do from heaven.
Binyon sees a continuation of life after death, and that’s why the choice of the word ‘fallen’ in the title, because the sacrificed young men never die. Contrarily, they seem to receive a better, divine existence, incomparable to that of their living fellows. This idea might very well surprise Owen, who suggests that the experience of the war turned the innocent soldiers into devils, who will never find peace in heaven, but will burn in hell – thus the violent death of the soldier and the ‘obscene cancer’ which infects him.
The differences between the portrayals of the experience of war in the two poems in striking. Binyon’s account is patriotic one, which glorifies the fallen soldiers and gives meaning and divinity to their deaths. However, considering the time when it was written – at the beginning of the Great War – we can get a better understanding of the poet’s reasons for such an idyllic portrayal of the fighting. At the start of it, the government needed to make the idea of warfare an appealing one in order to have young men risking their lives in the battle . Thus the attractive and heroic depiction of the combating soldiers. At the same time, the poem tries to soothe the mourning families, and this explains the almost holly aura that encircles the deaths on the front. However, as time went on, people got tired of the war and the increasing number of deaths. Soldiers returning from the battle spread the world about appalling conditions and cruel, meaningless deaths. Owen, who wrote the poem by the end of the conflict, seems to be well informed about the direct experience of the war and at the same time he is aware of the patriotic and idyllic accounts that existed at the beginning of the fighting.
This explains the angry, visceral and meaningless deaths which he depicts in his poem, almost as if he was angry about people lying and making war seem a worthy, purposeful thing. And indeed, his poem ends with a call to other people not to ‘tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some glory, / the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori (It is sweet, and honourable to die for one’s country). Owen wrote as an answer to other poems such as Binyon’s which glorify the experience of war, and this is why he chose the title ‘Dulce et decorum est’, to arise the memory of the patriotic accounts from the beginning of the war, and then throughout his poem to shatter ‘the old Lie’. He personifies this lie with the capital letter, making it seem as a destructive, evil person. This is the reason why Owen sticks to visceral descriptions – he prefers not to spare the reader, because he believes that the Lie is even crueller than the merciless reality of the war.