An Essay on "Dulce et Decorum Est"
Wilfred Owen once wrote, "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." Keeping in line with his pronouncement, Owen addresses the true nature of war in his poetry and counteracts the popular message that war is noble and glorious. In early drafts of "Dulce et Decorum Est," Owen ironically dedicates it to Jessie Pope, a writer of children’s books and conventionally patriotic poetry. Owen’s depiction of an incident between troops and poisonous gas clearly denies the tenet of resplendent patriotism spread by war recruiters and idealistic poets, such as Pope. By combining gruesome imagery and effective metaphors with the subtle nuances of the poem’s form, Wilfred Owen decries the belief of war’s glory in "Dulce et Decorum Est."
Owen initiates the reader to drastic contrast between the real and purported soldiers’ lives from the onset of the poem. Even the title is ironic. Owen quotes the beginning part of the phrase, "Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori," which means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country." There is, however, nothing that is sweet in his depiction of war. The similes "Bent double, like beggars under sacks" and "coughing like hags" give the impression that the characters are weak, dirty and poor. However, these "beggars" and "hags" are soldiers, men in their prime. If the conditions are such that strong, young men are no longer healthy or capable of standing tall, then the situation must be deplorable. By portraying the soldiers in this sordid light, Owen begins to negate the glory of war.
Owen refutation continues as his use of imagery allows the reader to not only picture, but understand the poor environmental and physical conditions. "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; / Drunk with fatigue." These men are not merely tired. They are at the end of their strength. Their feet are caked with blood, and they are barely making their way through the "sludge." The mud can only tire the soldiers more, as it weighs down their uniforms and legs. Even their uniforms have lost their militaristic crispness, as Owen describes them as "sacks." This picture is a definite contrast to the idealized marching formations of troops. In fact, Owens’s word choices in the line "But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;" give the feeling that these men have become dehumanized and degraded into an animal-like state. The use of the term "shod" evokes a connection to horses as opposed to men. The overall picture Owen creates is quite startling and dismaying.
The action rises in the second stanza as one soldier fails to don his gas mask in time. The stanza begins with dialogue, set apart by a hyphen. "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling," The meter is inconsistent at this line, possibly awaking or drawing attention from the reader as the voice does to the soldiers. The alert comes too late for that one soldier, and much of the second stanza is an extended metaphor regarding him. "As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. / In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." This metaphor works well because it helps the reader understand the feeling of being trapped by poisonous gas. The man in the poem, literally, cannot breathe. Similarly, when submerged underwater, a person dies by taking water into the lungs. This man dies gruesomely after he inhales the gas. Owen reinforces his metaphor by rhyming "drowning" with itself, and illustrates the soldier’s powerlessness.
Another aspect of the second stanza is the imagery and word choice. The imagery used to describe the unlucky soldier is frightening. "But someone still was yelling out and stumbling / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…." The ellipses at the end of line twelve suggests that the soldier’s "flound’ring" is drawn out. In addition, the word choice offers interesting juxtaposition to the drowning metaphor. Owen describes the soldier’s "flound’ring" as if he was "a man in fire or lime…." The notion of burning, combined with the idea of drowning, creates a terrifying situation. This is neither a glorious nor a noble death.
Owen makes his main point in the third and final stanza, after describing the soldier’s corpse. Instead of only using description, Owen also addresses the reader. "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / … / If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / … / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest." By addressing the reader, Owens separates those who have experienced war versus those who have not. This stanza bears the validity of a testimonial and gives the gruesome imagery added impact. The narrator walks behind the wagon bearing the corpse, and he offers the reader a description. "And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; / If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs." Owen’s description is revolting. This is not the picture many people see when they think of war. In fact, the desecration of the body continues well past the point of death, due to the nature of the gas. "Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…." The use of the word "cud" brings to mind the slow chewing, swallowing, and regurgitating process of a cow’s eating habits. In this context, then, the reader is presented with the notion of this gas burning the flesh as it tries to escape the body it has contaminated.
Owen goes from descriptive to preachy in the last quatrain in the last stanza. "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie…." Anger is apparent in these lines. The narrator obviously feels that those who propagate the idea that war is noble are doing a disservice to the youth. Looking back at the previous line "Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –" the reader gets the idea that the soldiers are innocent. These soldiers were once the "children ardent for some desperate glory," brainwashed into the sacrifice of their lives under hideous conditions. Owen’s use of the hyphen in "Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, – " works as a dramatic pause and delineates the separation between his example and his main point.
By using such ghastly imagery and metaphors, Owens negates the idea of "Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." He shows that war is brutal and ugly, and it is not "sweet and fitting to die for one’s country." In addition, Owen creates an ironic poem by maintaining the rhyme of patriotic verse but using an inconsistent meter. Through the inconsistent meter, he makes a subtle statement about the drudgery and variance of activity in warfare. It makes a direct contrast to the marching meter of patriotic verse. Owen makes use of many poetic and literary devices to attest to the horrors of war and the irresponsibility of war’s proponents.