Dulce et Decorum Est

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Dulce et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen 1920

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Many of Wilfred Owen’s poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est,” paint in stark images the brutality of war. Having fought in some of the bloodiest action of World War I, Owen wished to warn his English countrymen that the horrors of combat far outweigh its glory. He believed that those writers and politicians at home who championed the necessity of war did so only because they had not experienced its suffering—the suffering of the poem’s dying soldier poisoned by mustard gas, his “white eyes writhing in his face,” the blood “gargling” from his lungs. Such images were intended to make civilians experience the troops’ fear and pain. Owen hoped that by displaying in such vivid terms the reality of war he might encourage others to let pity inform their patriotism.

“Dulce et Decorum Est,” like much of Owen’s work, relies on irony—a figure of speech in which the actual intent is expressed in words which carry the opposite meaning—to help convey its message about war. An example of this is title itself, from the Latin poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”). Although patriotic and romantic depiction’s of war run through British poetry of the Victorian period (see, for instance, Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), Owen hoped to direct poetry in a new direction. He shows us nothing “sweet” in a gas attack, nothing “fitting” or heroic about bootless, “blood-shod” soldiers marching “like old beggars” and “coughing like hags.” Compared with war’s absurd violence, Owen suggests, patriotism becomes an absurd matter: the poem never tells us what country the poisoned soldier is dying for.

Owen himself was killed in 1918, a week before the armistice that ended World War I. He had just returned to the front after recuperating from illness in a Scottish hospital. While in the hospital, he met and was encouraged by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who published much of Owen’s work in a volume titled Poems in 1920. Today Owen is regarded as one of the finest war poets of the century.

Author Biography

Owen was born in 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire, the eldest son of Susan Shaw Owen and Thomas Owen, a railroad station master. After attending schools in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury, and failing in an attempt to win a scholarship to enter London University, Owen became an unpaid lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. After trying unsuccessfully for a scholarship again in 1913, he spent time in France, teaching for a year at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, and then privately tutoring for an additional year. Shortly after his return to England, Owen enlisted in the Artist’s Rifles. He was later commissioned as a lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, and in late 1916, with World War I raging, was posted to the Western Front, where he participated in the Battle of the Somme. Suffering shell-shock after several months of service at the front, Owen was declared unfit to command and was taken out of action in May, 1917. In June he was admitted to Craiglock-hart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, an outspoken critic of the war who encouraged him to use his battle experiences as subjects for poetry. Owen returned to the front in early September 1918, shortly afterwards being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He was killed in action at the Sambre Canal in northeast France on November 4, 1918—one week before the Armistice. He is buried at Ors, France.

Sassoon’s respect and encouragement confirmed for Owen his ability as a poet. Under Sassoon’s guidance he first adapted his poetic techniques to nontraditional war subjects, writing most of his critically acclaimed poems in the fifteen months prior to his death. Having had only five poems published during his lifetime, Owen’s reputation as a poet was only established in 1920, with

the publication of Poems, a volume edited by Sas-soon. A second collection edited by Edmund Blunden caught the attention of W. H. Auden and the poets in his circle who admired Owen’s artistry and technique. Owen is widely considered among the finest English poets of World War I, gaining further recognition through an additional collection edited by C. Day Lewis and the inclusion of his works in numerous anthologies.

Poem Text

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
      through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots          5
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;               10
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,            15
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;          20
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest      25
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

In contrast with the title, which suggests that war, patriotic duty, and even death for one’s country are “sweet and fitting,” the poet shows us nothing noble about the wretched condition of the soldiers on their march. These troops appear far different than the ones the British people might have been used to reading about. They are “bent double” under the weight of their packs, but bent also, perhaps, under the weight of duty itself. Using simile—a figure of speech expressing the similarity between two seemingly unlike things—the speaker compares the troops to “old beggars” and “hags.” The effect of the comparisons is to create a frightful, almost medieval atmosphere. Moreover, the comparison of the soldiers with “hags,” or witches, creates the sense of the unnatural and introduces the possibility of some kind of evil at hand. The “haunting fires” reinforce this sense. Also notice, beginning the second line, the sequence of participles—“knock-kneed, coughing,” etc.—that suggest the sounds and persistence of battle.

Line 2

In the second line, the speaker defines his relationship to the situation: “we cursed through sludge.” By identifying himself as one of the soldiers, he establishes the authority necessary to comment on the hardships he describes. In addition, he reminds us that war is not a far-away spectacle, not the heroic scene described by Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but as real and as close to us as the speaker himself.

Lines 5-8

The speaker lists the soldiers’ tribulations in short, direct phrases, varying at times from the dominant iambic meter to highlight certain details. A number of figurative uses are introduced here as well to demonstrate the suffering of the troops. They are “blood-shod”—a use of metaphor since it is an implied, rather than directly stated, comparison between the blood on the troops’ feet and the boots they have “lost.” Also note a similar use of hyperbole—a figure of speech based on exaggeration—when the speaker says the men are “deaf” to the cries of their comrades and that “all went lame; all blind.” The troops are “drunk with fatigue”— an ironic echo of the “sweetness” in the title. Even the falling artillery shells, or “Five-Nines,” are “tired” and “outstripped” by the grave nature of the men’s fatigue. The images presented thus far create a somber, static, and miserable world, one in which the indignities the soldiers suffer seem as if they will go on indefinitely. This stasis, however, provides a grim contrast with the explosive violence of the second stanza.

Lines 9-11

A shift in voice brings on the sudden gas attack. In two sharp syllables someone—we cannot tell who—warns the men of a gas attack. We watch the men scramble for their gas masks in “an ecstasy of fumbling.” Owen might intend irony in the use of the word “ecstasy,” which can mean “a frenzy of exalted delight.” Certainly the men should not be delighted about the attack. In an older sense of the word, however, Owen might simply mean that the soldiers have entered a state of emotion so intense that rational thought is obliterated. A third possibility is that Owen is suggesting a kind of mystical experience. As the men fight for their lives, they may feel the kind of religious ecstasy associated with near-death experiences. At any rate, one soldier fails to put his mask on in time and is poisoned by the gas.

Lines 12-14

In World War I both the allies and the Germans used mustard gas as a way of both attacking and striking fear into the enemy. If breathed without the protection of a mask, the gas quickly burns away the lining of the respiratory system. Thus the speaker compares the soldier with a man consumed in “fire or lime.” Such a fate is not often compared with “drowning,” yet the speaker knows that victims of mustard gas effectively drown in the blood from their own lung tissues. In addition, mustard gas has a particular hue—“as under a green sea.” The speaker views the “flound’ring” man as if through an underwater mask, adding to the nightmarish and surreal atmosphere of the poem thus far.

Lines 15-16

In these two lines the incident is transformed to one that seems like a dream to an actual dream— a recurring vision or nightmare that the speaker cannot escape. In this dream the “guttering, choking” soldier “plunges” at the “helpless” speaker, seeking assistance. Although the speaker can do nothing for the man, there is still a feeling of responsibility and guilt. Perhaps many survivors of such attacks felt the same sense of guilt, wondering why they lived while their friends died.

Lines 17-24

In this last stanza the speaker directly addresses the reader—one who, presumably, is reading in the safety of England and who has not personally witnessed the type of horror just described. The speaker suggests that if the reader too were subject to such memories, they would “smother” the reader’s conscience in the same way the mustard gas has suffocated the soldier. The images that follow depict the aftermath of the attack: the soldier’s slow death, the “eyes writhing” in his face, the “blood come gargling from his lungs.” Note among these descriptions the powerful use of alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds in closely related words. A good example of this can be found in lines 18 and 19: “wagon,” watch,” white,” “writhing.” The speaker combines this sound device with the most discomforting words he can conjure. The soldier’s face is like “a devil’s sick of sin”; his lungs are “corrupted” and “obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues” that suggest unseemly diseases.

Lines 25-28

If the reader—“my friend”—could see such horrors, the speaker insists, then his or her attitude toward war would change. The reader would not encourage war-like fervor, would not repeat patriotic slogans such as Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori, a saying which would have been familiar to Owen’s contemporaries. In this part of the poem, the Latin phrase is used without irony: it is simply called a “Lie.” Owen suggests that if the reader continue to spread that lie to young men prone to believing romantic sentiment, then those

Media Adaptations

  • The audiobook English Verse: Early 20th Century from Hardy to Owen covers the great English poetry written from 1880-1918, including the “poignant realism of the War Poets Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon.” The audio anthology is published by Penguin Audiobooks.
  • Created in 1999, the on-line Wilfred Owen Association at http://www.wilfred.owen.association.mcmail.com/ offers visitors a virtual tour of Owen’s life and poetry. There is also a membership offer, including a twice-a-year newsletter.
  • Another website—http://www.hcu.ox.uk/jtap/— with information on Wilfred Owen is the Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive (WOMDA). Created by the Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University, this site includes not only Owen’s manuscripts, but also has a selection of World War I publications and an archive of period documents.
  • Artist Robert Andrew Parker has created an exhibition based on the poems of Wilfred Owen. Published in catalog format by the Saint Paul Art Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the title of the portfolio is Watercolors by Robert Andrew Parker: My Subject is War and the Pity of War.

young men will likely receive a fate like that of the fallen soldier. Thus the final line is the shortest of the poem, bringing on the full effect of the three crucial words, Pro patria mori: to die for one’s country.


Death and Human Suffering

Owen’s poem, describing the death of a soldier caught in a gas attack, is at once a realistic portrait of the brutality of war and a lesson in morality to those who would romanticize patriotic duty.

Topics for Further Study

  • Contrast a poem of Owen’s to Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta,” a poem that expresses the honor of being called to military duty. How does tone (the speaker’s attitude) help create the vastly different themes in each poem?
  • Trace the developments of modern warfare from World War I to today. What major technologies have helped define warfare along the way?
  • Research the effects mustard gas has on the human body. Include various systems (e.g. nervous, respiratory, etc.).
  • Think of an abstract concept (like Love, Hate, Death, Confusion, etc.). Now, without naming the abstract concept, write a poem describing it, using only concrete sensory details (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). When finished, share your poem with a classmate and see if they can tell you what you’ve written your poem about.
  • As a class, create your own War Memorial. Include family members and friends of families who have served during wartime. You may also add artists like Wilfred Owen, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim O’Brien, John Singer Sargent, and others. Be creative! Include photos, poems, letters, artwork, etc.

Owen’s representation of death and human suffering within the poem is significant in terms of its depth; on the surface the poem chronicles the physical destruction of men at war. “Dulce et Decorum Est” achieves its power, however, through the equally compelling discussion of both the emotional and spiritual destruction with which war threatens the individual.

Death and human suffering, on a purely physical plane, are abundant throughout the poem. The first stanza depicts the horrors of the war on the human body-even for those lucky enough to survive their tour of duty. It takes young, healthy, empowered men and turns them, metaphorically, into aged transients and pathetic invalids. War has exacted such a physical price on those asked to wage it that they are literally transformed with exhaustion, unable to appreciate the deadly reality surrounding them. They are, in Owen’s words, “… Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots / Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.” The remaining lines of the poem focus on the horrific death of one young man caught in the devastating fumes of mustard gas. Owen’s use of water imagery makes this scene all the more uncomfortable to witness, as the soldier’s death is compared to a drowning. He is described as “flound’ring,” “guttering,” and “choking.” Owen twice uses the very word—“drowning.”

While the physical pain is noteworthy, the death of the soldier is rivaled by the emotional suffering present in the poem. The men themselves face the most primal of emotions, fear. First, Owen repeats the word “gas” at the beginning of the second stanza; the capitalization of all three letters in its second usage clearly indicates a heightened sense of panic. Interestingly, while the impact of the poem in no small measure comes from the candid nature of its witness, the narrator does not need to embellish the account with exaggerated punctuation. The images speak for themselves. It is only here, as the reader hears the dialogue of the soldiers, that we see the use of exclamation points. This combined with the aforementioned use of capitalization serves to convey a strong emotional investment. The true emotional impact, though, is on the solitary soldier. It is not, however, to be focused on the dying man, whose terrified confusion can easily be imagined in “the white eyes writhing in his face.” It is on the man condemned to replay this grisly scene again and again in his tortured sleep. The speaker in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” so clearly identifiable as Owen himself, is forever plagued with visions of his comrade’s demise, evidenced by lines 15-16: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” Just as there was nothing either man could do to prevent the gas from killing the soldier once he has inhaled the noxious fumes, the guilt-stricken speaker seems equally incapable of forgetting what he has seen in surviving the attack. The soldier’s literal death—suffocation by “froth-corrupted lungs”—is symbolically preserved in the speaker’s “smothering dreams.”

Finally, the poem revolves around spiritual suffering and death. Owen once described himself as “a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience,” further stating that “pure Christianity will not fit with pure patriotism.” There is a distinct irony that should be acknowledged here. Owen’s reputation as a poet is a direct result of the impact the war had on his poetry. While his earlier work evidences a commitment to the Romantic precepts of Love and Beauty and the trappings of fantasy, it is his role as a soldier in one of the most costly wars in the history of mankind that reveals his true growth as an artist. War confronted Owen with reality, with Truth; however, these same horrible realities that signal a maturation for the poet, also coincide with the destructive force the war had on all who fought it. For Owen, the war became a symbol for the ugliness of human nature. The last stanza, then, represents for the speaker a sacrifice, with the doomed soldier’s face “hanging … like a devil’s sick of sin.” The death is “Obscene,” compared to “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” These comparisons are not those of the man who is dying, but instead of the man left to remember the death. In the end, it is the poet’s innocence—his tongue—which has been violated. It is his responsibility to at once reveal the ugly truth of war to the world, and warn others of the danger of romanticizing this truth. In one stanza Owen connects the guilt a surviving soldier feels when his brother-in-arms falls with the guilt others should feel who either ignore or willfully dismiss the truth of war.


“Dulce et Decorum Est” is divided into four stanzas, each addressing situation or idea. The first stanza describes a group of marching soldiers in a shell-shocked, wretched condition. The second stanza shows a gas attack in which one of the soldiers is stricken. The third stanza describes the event’s nightmarish effect on the speaker, while the fourth suggests that the reader should be similarly impacted.

The dominant meter of the poem is iambic. This means the poem’s lines are constructed in two-syllable segments, called iambs, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed. As an example of iambic meter, consider the following line from the poem:

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs.

If we divide the iambs from one another and mark the unstressed and stressed syllables, the line appears like this:

Tillon / the haun / ting flares / we turned / our backs.

Reading the line normally, you will notice the emphasis on the stressed syllables. Iambic meter is natural to the English language and is the most common measure in English verse. Shakespeare employed iambic meter throughout much of his work. In fact, to remember what iambic meter is, you can always sound out the syllables of these famous words: “To be, or not to be.”

While “Dulce et Decorum Est” is written primarily in iambic meter, Owen deviates from the pattern at times to heighten the sense of certain words. Consider, for example, this line:

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all

If you read the line naturally, you will find only one weak, or unstressed, syllable: the first. All others are strong, or stressed, in order point out the crippling reality of the soldiers’ physical condition. The poet varies his iambic meter in lines like this to achieve a specific effect. Yet to do so, he has had to set up a dominant pattern from which to deviate.

Finally, note that the poem’s stanzas include quatrains, or groups of four lines each, in which the last syllables of first and third lines as well as the second and fourth lines rhyme with one another. This form of rhyme scheme is often used in ballads and in heroic verse. Owen might have chosen the form to make readers think about the contrast between his poem and more traditional war poems.

Historical Context

“Dulce et Decorum Est” is historically useful because it so poignantly shows both the changes in the way war was to be fought as well as the necessary metamorphosis war poetry would have to undergo in the face of such change. To understand this, it is vital to consider the two major differences the twentieth century brought on to the battle field—namely, technology and trenches.

It has been estimated by war historian Leon Woolf that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000,000 men died fighting in World War I. This does not include the 21,000,000 soldiers wounded, and only accounts for a million of the 7,750,919 captured or missing in action. While such numbers are certainly staggering, none include the loss of civilian life during the war. It is under this dark

Compare & Contrast

  • November 11, 1918: The Armistice agreement is signed at 5:50 a.m.; at 11:00 a.m. all fighting ceases. World War I is over.

    September 1939: The German attack on Poland precipitates World War II. Over 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others will be persecuted and murdered under Nazi tyranny.

    May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders to Allied forces.

    August 6, 1945: The first atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan is dropped on Hiroshima.

    August 9, 1945: The second atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan is dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrender September 2, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.

    June 1950: The North Korean army launches a surprise attack on the thirty-eighth parallel, marking the beginning of the Korean War.

    July 27, 1953: The Armistice signed in Panmunjon brings an end to the Korean War.

    March 8, 1965: The first American combat troops land in Da Nang, Vietnam, marking the “Americanization” of the war in Vietnam.

    1968: The number of American forces in Vietnam reaches over 500,000. Over 14,000 U.S. soldiers will be killed in 1968.

    March 28, 1973: The Last of the American troops and prisoners leave South Vietnam. The United States has lost over 45,000 men killed in action and a further 300,000 have been wounded.

    1982: The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial—“The Wall”—is dedicated in Washington, D.C.

    1990-2000: Wars continue to be waged, throughout the world and for a myriad of different reasons. From the Persian Gulf War to the warfare in Bosnia-Herzegovina, peoples of the world continue to fight each other.

umbrella that Wilfred Owen both fought, wrote, and died. The numbers alone would seem to support Owen’s caustic message in “Dulce et Decorum Est”; anyone witnessing such a tremendous loss of life would be hard put to continue feeding young children the romantic rhetoric of patriotism and heroism associated with warfare going into the twentieth century. But what caused such loss? Simply put, mankind became more efficient. The Great War was the first war in which technology was implemented in order to achieve military objectives. Men were equipped with machine guns, capable of spraying the enemy with bullets; the battlefields were bombarded with explosives and gas shells. And with this efficiency, this speed of death, came the demise of the romantic notion of the war hero. As Arthur E. Lane writes in his book An Adequate Response:

The war was a lesson in humility, not an exercise in cultural style: death came unseen and from a distance, and the inoffensive ex-clerk in an ill-fitting uniform who dutifully placed shell after shell in the breechlock of a gun which pointed only at the sky never knew if heroes or cowards or corpses awaited dismemberment in the distance. Men died asleep or playing cards, eating breakfast, writing letters, quarreling, picking lice from their clothes and hair. They died praying or cursing, weeping or dumb with horror, comforting each other or fighting for shelter.

Owen captures this in his poem, too. There are no heroes, only dog-tired men struggling for survival. None knew where the “tired, outstripped Five-Nines” were fired from, and most only have time to retreat beneath the relative safety of their gas masks before it is too late. Owen does not depict the men valiantly overcoming the effects of the gas to help their dying comrade. This is dirt-level survival. This is life on the battlefield. The cost is great and Owen reflects the sheer volume of death wrought by the war when he describes the way the men treated the dying soldier. There is no time for tears; last rites are muffled beneath panes of glass and clouds of gas. The soldiers merely fling him in

a wagon. In the end, no one can claim heroism— not the unknown man shelling them, not the unfortunate soldier left to die, and certainly not the guilt-ridden witness whose only response is to follow behind the wagon as the rest of the troops retreat from danger.

Just as the way in which war was fought forced a change in poetic perception, so too did where it was fought. The use of trenches is yet another hallmark of World War I. Wet, cold, and muddy, there was no retreat for the men forced to endure these conditions. In The Truth of War, author Desmond Graham writes of this harsh reality: “Physically, despite the inaction, the soldier is still assaulted, by cold; and physically, just as mentally, he is not left alone but reminded of his defencelessness by the snow which reaches his face. In this state, dreams do remain, and the soldier succumbs to them.” While Graham is specifically relating to Owen’s poem “Exposure”—a detailed account of life in the trenches—the same realities are reflected in “Dulce et Decorum Est” The reader can clearly see the effects living and fighting in the trenches has had on the men in the first stanza. They are not under direct military attack, and yet are “bent double” and “coughing like hags.” Owen makes mention of “the sludge” in which they march, some without boots. Here, too, we see the devastating toll the exposure to the harsh climate has taken on the men before the gas attack even commences. Again, this is not a poem of heroism; it is a poem of fact.

Critical Overview

Many writers, including the prominent British poet C. Day Lewis, have commented that Owen’s war poems are among the best written in our century. Though Owen lived to see only four of his poems published, he wrote nearly all of his best work, including “Dulce et Decorum Est,” in a span of only one year, the twenty-sixth and last year of his life. Lewis notes the maturity of these poems: “It was as if, during the weeks of his first tour of duty in the trenches, he came of age emotionally and spiritually.” Lewis cites “the originality and force of [the poems’] language” as well as their passion and “harsh realism.” “Dulce et Decorum Est” marks the period which, according to Lewis, made Owen a major poet capable of changing people’s minds about war. The sudden maturation of Owen’s work, writes Lewis, represents “a forced growth, a revolution in his mind which, blasting through all the poetic brick-a-brack, enabled him to see his subject clear—‘War, and the pity of War.’”

Not all have agreed that “the pity of war”— Owen’s own phrase—is a basis for sound poetry. William Butler Yeats, for one, determined the “passive suffering” in Owen’s work an unfit theme. Critic Samuel Hazo has challenged the notion that many of the poems spring from pity at all. Instead, Hazo suggests, the bulk of Owen’s work arises from uncontrolled indignation. “Many of them,” he writes in Renascence, “are revelations of acrimony, protest, pessimism, outrage and hatred.” While Hazo admits Owen manages to achieve a degree of objectivity in some poems, he finds “Dulce et Decorum Est” to be merely didactic. “Whatever is poetic in it,” Hazo writes, “is subordinated to a rhetorical end.”


Daniel Moran

Daniel Moran is a secondary-school teacher of English and American Literature. He has contributed several entries and essays to the Gale series Drama for Students. In the following essay, Moran examines the ways in which Owen’s poem can be read as a reaction to pro-war sentimentality.

Shakespeare’s Henry V contains one of the Bard’s most popular and rousing speeches: When King Henry learns that the morale of his soldiers has sank, he realizes that he must rouse them to action for their upcoming battle against the French at Harfleur. The English are outnumbered five to one by the well-rested French—a fact that has caused Henry’s men to lose heart about their cause and fear their seemingly inevitable deaths. Henry turns all of his rhetorical skills to the effort of boosting his soldiers’ confidence and convincing them that, whatever happens, they will be remembered for their dedication and courage:

If we are marked to die, we are enow 
To do our country loss; and if to live, 
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.
God’s will! I pray thee wish not one man more … 
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my 
That he which hath no stomach to this fight, 
Let him depart; his passport shall be made, 
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company 
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

Already Henry is playing the “masculinity card” and inviting his soldiers to side with him— for who among them will take the King’s offer of “crowns for convoy” after hearing these words? Henry then reminds them of the holiday on which they are about to fight and offers them a vision of a future which, according to his propaganda, is the only one that a real true-born Englishman would want:

This day is called the Feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages
What feats he did that day …
And gentlemen in England, now abed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispian’s day.

Henry’s men—now roused by the words of their King—proceed to slaughter the French, who lose ten thousand men while the British only part with twenty-five. “O God, thy arm was here!” the King proclaims, and the viewer, stirred by Henry’s charisma, is apt to agree with him.

That is, unless the viewer is Wilfred Owen, or any sensitive reader of “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” a poem that is as savage and merciless to the rhetoric spouted by Henry as the King’s armies are to the French. Owen’s poem, which describes a gas-attack upon a British company during World War I, attacks the kind of sentimental notions about war that Henry espouses so skillfully. Owen’s title, when read before the actual poem, leads a reader to think that the poem will be in a vein similar to Henry’s speech at Harfleur, but by the end of the poem, the title becomes (like many other moments in the poem) ironic and bitter. Saint Crispan’s Day never arrives, and the speaker’s scars are mental ones that never heal—and that are definitely never shown to his neighbors as examples of his manhood.

The poem begins with the speaker’s description of his company:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
      through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And toward our distant rest began to trudge.

Owen’s depiction of the soldiers is the first of the poem’s ironies: They are not completing the “feats” of which King Henry speaks, but are instead scrambling, with all the stature and courage of “old beggars under sacks,” for cover. The sound of these opening lines echoes their sense: “Bent double” jars the ear just as the men’s backs are “jarred” under the weight of their packs, and the fourth line—

And toward our distant rest began to trudge

—“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.) This trudging continues:

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 

Bereft of all their senses (they are “blind” and “deaf”), these men are exhausted to the point where their fatigue intoxicates them; They cannot hear the jeering “hoots” of the gas shells that mock their efforts to escape.

This description of solders in battle is far removed from those urged on by King Henry in another part of his play, where he advises them to

Imitate the action of the tiger: 
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood, 
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage … 
Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide, 
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit 
To his full height!

As Owen points out in the opening words of his poem, these men are incapable of “bending up the spirit,” for the war has made them “Bent double,” not like tigers, but “like old beggars under sacks.”

Once the men realize that they have been gassed, the poem again imitates, through its meter, the sense of what is happening:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

There is an “ecstasy of fumbling” to the ear here as well, when the verse sounds as clumsy as the soldiers trying to get their masks on before the gas grasps their lungs. The line depicting the solders’ realization of the gas attack—with its first four words stressed and monosyllabic—heightens the reader’s sense of the soldiers’ urgency; Likewise,

“Owen’s poem, which describes a gas-attack upon a British company during World War I, attacks the kind of sentimental notions about war that Henry espouses so skillfully.”

the verbs “fumbling,” “stumbling,” “flound’ring,” and “drowning” are connected by the sounds of their endings as well as their depictions of the men made graceless and spasmodic. The image of the “green sea” of gas—and the soldier in it, appearing to the speaker as a drowning man, struggling for air but eventually collapsing under the pressure of the poison—conveys the speaker’s helplessness and provokes the reader into considering another irony of war, where men drown on land. Everything in Owen’s poem is thus reversed, both literally (the soldiers seek rest but are instead attacked) and metaphorically (the title is held up as a “lie” that perpetuates the horrors depicted in the poem.

While Henry told his men that their futures would reward them for their bravery, the future of Owen’s speaker is one haunted by (rather than enhanced by) the memory of battle. The next two lines—

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

—personalize the action of the poem and connect it to the memory of the speaker. The Germans are never mentioned by name in the poem, because, in a sense, they are not the real enemy here. Rather, the memory of the dying man, that “plunges at” the “helpless” speaker as if in attack, turns out to be more powerful than the Germans because it can never be vanquished. Long after the armistice, this formidable foe continues to threaten the speaker.

As the poem begins with a description of a company and then narrows its focus to a single victim, the final stanza becomes more focused still, with the speaker making a direct address to a nameless individual. He states,

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

What Do I Read Next?

  • Randall Jarrell is a writer who, like Owen, uses powerful imagery to convey the horror of war. His poem “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” in particular, has themes and incidents similar to those in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Specifically, the reader is shown the fear and nightmarish reality surrounding a gunner’s last living moments. The poem is included in Jarrell’s 1945 collection, The Complete Poems.
  • In the September 18, 1997 issue of English in Australia authors Peter McFarlane and Trevor Temple discuss an innovative plan for teaching Owen’s poetry by having students develop meaning with a dramatic reading of the poem, interpretive music or dance, or artwork. McFarlane and Temple note that the method seems to have fostered for their students a better understanding and student “ownership” of Owen’s poetry. The title of their article is “Making Meaning: A Teaching Approach to the Poetry of Wilfred Owen Using the Visual and Performing Arts.”
  • Vietnam veteran and poet Yusef Komunyakaa offers another excellent example of a soldier who recaptures “in country” experiences in his poetry. Like Owen, Komunyakaa saw fellow soldiers fall in action. His poem “Facing It” depicts the physical and emotional reflection a veteran has when visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This poem can be found in Komunyakaa’s 1988 Dien Kai Dau.
  • A true sense of the talent of an artist can not possibly be gained through the analysis of a single piece of that artist’s craft. Students interested in Owen’s poetry should read his other works, including “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “Strange Meeting,” “Arms and the Boy,” “Spring Offensive,” and “A Terre.” These poems and many others can be found in Owen’s Collected Poems, published in 1964.
  • R. L. Barth’s 1983 Forced Marching to the Styx: Vietnam War Poems is yet another example of the impact war has on humanity. An excellent place to begin is with Barth’s poem “The Insert.”
  • Students interested in the fiction arising from wartime experience should read the works of Tim O’Brien. An excellent place to start is O’Brien’s 1979 National Book Award-winning novel Going after Cacciato.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin …

The speaker not only wants to convey the horror of his experience—he positively wants the nameless “you” to see what he has seen. (“You, too, should have these dreams,” he suggests, for reasons that become apparent later in the poem.) The image of a man not gingerly lowered into the ground in a casket but instead “flung” into a wagon stresses the indignity of the soldier’s impending death, while the simile “like a devil’s sick of sin” creates the impression that the soldier has become other than human—a revolting, almost supernatural creature.

Even this imagery (and such powerful imagery it is, with the “white eyes writhing in his face”) is not enough for the speaker. He also wants “you” to hear the soldier die as well, in full cinematic sound:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

Recalling the notion of the soldier “drowning” in gas, these lines offer the sounds of drowning— except that the “gargling” is not water, but blood. The soldier is, in effect, drowning in himself—in his own blood—which compounds the initial irony of a man drowning on land. The speaker also appeals to the sense of taste here as well, comparing the solder’s taste of his own blood to “the cud / Of vile, incurable sores”; the rhyming of “blood” and “cud” emphasizes their relationship in terms of taste, while the overall impression of the taste is one as revolting as the “white eyes writhing in his face.” The once innocent soldier has been corrupted (“froth-corrupted,” to be exact) by the war, and his body is the brutal proof of that fact.

But who is the “you” upon whom the speaker is forcing these images, sounds, and tastes? The answer lies in the poem’s final lines, after the speaker finishes cataloguing the horrors of the dream he wants this “you” to have: If you could have dreams as vivid as these, he implies, then

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The “you” is not specifically King Henry V, but all those like him, who clothe the horrors of war in beautiful words and appeal to those “children” (automatic symbols of innocence) who yearn for a glory made “desperate” by the fact that it is only attainable through wounds or death. Nor is this “you” actually the speaker’s “friend,” since that address in this context is a sarcastic one. Horace’s adage—like Henry’s bombast—is an “old lie,” and the poem attacks those who propound it. The final, awful irony is that Owen himself died fighting in World War I, a week before the armistice was declared. Like millions of others, there was no Saint Crispin’s Day for him.

Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.

Tyrus Miller

In the following essay, Tyrus Miller examines the vivid images of Owen’s poem.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is justly one of his most celebrated poems and a landmark amidst the poetry written by combat soldiers during World War I. Owen combines vivid sensory immediacy, conveyed through his careful composition of sound, imagery, and syntax, with a powerful psychological and ideological denunciation of war. Juxtaposing an implied schoolboy past when he still believed in the “Old Lie” of glory in war, the horrifying recent past of the gas attack, and the present of dreams and writing in which the Old Lie of glorious death appears in all its falseness, Owen weaves a complex pattern of time and changing consciousness throughout his poem. In a few terse lines, he manages to contrast the classical age of the Latin poet Horace to his own modern age, the idealizing words of the schoolbook to the reality of

“Juxtaposing an implied schoolboy past when he still believed in the “Old Lie” of glory in war, the horrifying recent past of the gas attack, and the present of dreams and writing in which the Old Lie of glorious death appears in all its falseness, Owen weaves a complex pattern of time and changing consciousness throughout his poem.”

warfare, the blind patriotism of the homefront to the cynical demystified attitude of the frontline soldier, and the naïvety of the child to the dismaying recognitions of the adult.

The Latin phrase “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which lends the poem its title and concluding lines, comes from a poem of Horace, writing under the emperor Augustus Caesar. It means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” For Owen, a junior officer in the British army who died in combat in 1918, the line has a number of resonances that make it an appropriate target of his anger and criticism in his poem. First, the sentiment the line expresses is obviously an incentive to patriotic self-sacrifice, to be willing to die in war for one’s country so as to experience the glory of one’s deeds. Yet equally importantly, such lines were the mainstay of British classical education, which stressed learning classical languages and experiencing the morally uplifting quality of the literary culture of the ancients. While the less savory or sexually racy parts of the classical canon were edited out, the textbooks and anthologies were full of such edifying phrases as the one that gives Owen his theme. Owen, thus, is primarily interested in the latter-day uses of the classics rather than in their historical reality. He not really concerned whether Horace himself was being sincere or hypocritical when he penned his lines. Rather, he is pointing to the hypocrisy or blindness of those who continue to feed children on classical ideals in a modern world in which these values no longer correspond to any reality: the terrifying new world in which the trench soldier found himself, an infernal landscape of mud, flares, devastated houses, machine guns, gas grenades, barbed wire, and long-range artillery. If the schoolmaster and the war recruiter could really experience what modern warfare was like, Owen believes, they would not be so eager to trot out the well-rehearsed lines written hundreds of years in the past: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The Old Lie.”

Owen begins his poem in confusion and apparent violence, strongly implying that the reader has entered in the middle of some action already well underway. With the first two words, “Bent double,” the reader gets the impression of a blow that has been struck or a dangerous near-miss that has compelled a tense, rapid, violent contraction of a body. Owen reinforces this sense of contortion and displacement by withholding the person who has been bent until the second line (“we”) and adding several other images further contributing to this impression of a body knocked out of kilter: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” Up to this point, these figures have no definite location or features. Soon, the reader will learn that they are drawn from the trenches of World War I; but in the opening lines, they might just as well be damned souls trudging all eternity through the hell of the medieval Christian poet Dante. Only with the flares of line 3 and the “trudge” to a distant rest does the reader finally begin to intimate who and where “we” are: a group of trench soldiers withdrawing from combat at night.

The next four lines draw a veil of extreme weariness over the scene. The men are marching in a half-sleep. They are insensate to pain. Many have lost their boots in the sludge and mud of the rain-filled trenches and shell holes, and they trudge on wearing their own blood as a kind of boot (“blood-shod”). In their fatigue, they are stunned and senseless, as if lame, blind, drunk, and deaf. So tired are they that the artillery shells that fall short of their lines seem to miss them because the shells themselves are fatigued. Clearly, the men are projecting their own tiredness onto everything around them.

In the midst of this dull, thudding atmosphere, Owen portrays a sudden, violent event that shatters the deadened mood of the previous stanza. As if the reader were present on the scene, the gas attack is announced only by the desperate warning of the officer in charge: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” They have only a few seconds to get their gas masks on to save themselves from the acrid, searing, toxic gas that has been released from a shell. Again, Owen captures the confusion and fear of a panicky mass of men scurrying to save themselves from threatening death: “An ecstasy of fumbling, / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.” Yet if the gas masks render the soldiers literally faceless, one man, a soldier who has failed to get his mask fitted in time, stands out from the rest: “But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime … / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”

In one of the most surprising turns of the poem, Owen suddenly pulls the reader out of the narrated war scene and into his own dreams: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” The shift is, in its own way, as violent as the gas attack that broke into the dozing fatigue of the first stanza. Once again, as at the beginning, the reader is unsettled and dislocated: was the vivid narration of the night march and gas attack a real event or a traumatic dream? Owen implies that in the end it does not really matter which it is, dream or reality. To have experienced this scene in real life is to be doomed to repeat it in dreams, and to dream it so vividly is to suffer its real agony all over again. Owen reinforces this sense of identity of dream and reality in his only departure from the otherwise strict alternating rhyme scheme (ABABCDCDEFEF etc.). In the two line stanza that mentions Owen’s dreams, rather than rhyming with the word “drowning” in line 14 from the previous stanza, Owen exactly repeats the word “drowning,” thus implying that this scene must recur over and over without change.

In the final stanza, the poem once again shifts, now from the poet’s dream to his address to a reader, presumed to be a person on the homefront who has experienced nothing of the horror of war and who still believes that war is glorious and ennobling. Owen angrily wishes that his reader could be haunted by dreams like his own, to feel drowned and smothered with guilt and horror as he does over the gassed soldier that had been under his command. Although he cannot literally bring this haunting about, through his poem and its grotesque details, he can force his reader to confront the ugly reality of war that masks behind fine phrases and edifying sentiments. Thus, Owen lingers over the sounds and sight of the dying body, destroyed by the poisonous gas. In six horrifying lines, he drags his reader slowly up to the brink of death. He displays the eyes moving convulsively about in the paralyzed face, expressing in this contradictory figure the soldier’s unspeakable suffering. He exhibits the blood and fluid that bubble up from the burned and blistered lungs, describing the gargling and croaking noises that the man makes as his wracked body is jolted along the road in the wagon in which it has been “flung.” And finally, the poet even takes us into the mouth of the man himself, forcing us to feel with him the sensation of his chewing and biting to relieve the pain of his burnt, ulcerated, swollen tongue.

Owen insists on the innocence of this tongue, so as to contrast it with the lack of innocence of those whose tongues continue to speak and teach “the Old Lie.” It is as if Owen were wishing that the innocent tongues of his men would be left unharmed, while those who continue to participate in the lie of the war, feeling no risk themselves, would have their tongues burned and blistered as soon as they tried to speak. Thus, Owen’s final lines are addressed to the teachers and parents who have helped prepare these young men to go to war, but left them unprepared for anything they would actually face. Many of these soldiers, he implies, were little more than children who thought they were going off to some high adventure, having been taught that war was a glorious thing, that death ennobles youth, and that they would prove their courage and virtue in combat. But the war being fought in the trenches, with gas and machine guns, Owen makes clear, is nothing like the idealized scenes of the one-on-one strife of valorous heroes fighting in classical poetry. Its violence strikes anonymously, destroys young bodies in the ugliest and most disgusting ways, makes men scurry to survive like rats, and give rise to a necessary cynicism and indifference towards the dying and dead. This, Owen implies, is the real face of “dying for one’s country,” and we should cease to fool ourselves and others about it. His final rhyme and closing line let the full irony of this phrase ring past the ending: glory rhymes with “mori” (die) as if glory is swallowed up in death. In the poem, as in real life, Owen has seen too clearly, it is death that has the last word, not glory.

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.

“Even more hauntingly, Owen writes of the fear of those who survive. The images of battle, ever imprinted on their minds, will haunt their sleep. The nightmare of the trenches can never be erased.”

Kimberly Lutz

Kimberly Lutz is an instructor at New York University and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she examines how Wilfred Owen broke from literary tradition in “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Generally regarded as the the poet of World War I, Wilfred Owen broke with many of the literary conventions of war literature in his poetry. Most strikingly, Owen does not present his soldiers as necessarily heroic. Instead he shows frightened men in pain, dying gruesomely. Their last thoughts are not of joy at having, in the words of American revolutionary patriot Nathan Hale, “but one life to give for their country.” Instead, they fight aimlessly for life. As they gasp their final breaths, Owen suggests that they have no comprehension of a righteous cause or a meaning behind their sacrifice. Even more haunt-ingly, Owen writes of the fear of those who survive. The images of battle, ever imprinted on their minds, will haunt their sleep. The nightmare of the trenches can never be erased. Indeed, Owen biographer and critic Dominic Hibberd records that Owen himself “deliberately stayed up late in order to shorten his sleeping hours” during his wartime hospitalization in Scotland, trying hopelessly to escape the memories that invaded his dreams. Hibberd believes that in “Dulce et Decorum Est” Owen was describing his own recurrent nightmares, “directly facing the central experience of his war dreams, the sight of a horrifying face which … renders him a ‘helpless,’ paralyzed spectator.”

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. Further, Tennyson describes how these soldiers, even while knowing that they are being sent to die because “Someone had blundered,” accept their fate ungrudgingly: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” Abandoning the ethos of self-sacrifice, the narrator of Owen’s poem does question why he and his fellow soldiers must miserably die in what seems to be a fruitless campaign. Directly addressing the reader, Owen argues that “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” The Latin line, taken from the ancient poet Horace, means “It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country.” Calling this “The old Lie,” Owen shows how dying is anything but sweet and questions the pursuit of “glory” that leads boys to the trenches. Breaking from the not too distant past—Tennyson died the year before Owen was born—Owen sets out to both question authority and to show realistically what World War I was like from the perspective of the trenches.

In trying to capture the feeling of modern warfare, however, Owen not only violated the literary conventions of poets like Horace and Tennyson, but of the popular poetry of his own time. In the newspapers, poets were writing of the glory of war, enjoining young men to rally to the cause and fight in the trenches. More than his other poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est” was written in direct response to such patriotic and sentimental dribble, and particularly in response to one prolific pro-war poet, Jessie Pope. In an earlier version of the poem, Owen actually named this woman, indicating that she was the “friend” who tells “children” the “old Lie.” One of her poems, “A Cossack Charge” describes soldiers in action: “The wine of war they’re quaffing,/ The glorious draught of swift, resistless death.” Death in her vision is heroic and almost desirable.

Owen’s argument with such patriotic writers was not well received by the early critics of his work. Critic D. S. R. Welland (who in 1960 called “Dulce et Decorum Est” “moralising”) cites a 1921 review in the Times Literary Supplement: “The suggestion is that a nation is divided into two parts, one of which talks of war and ordains it, while the other acts and suffers. We can understand how such a thought might arise, but not how it can persist and find sustenance.” In other words, this reviewer believed that Owen’s strong feelings of betrayal are overstated. In a 1924 letter, Sir Henry Newbolt, another patriotic poet who as critic Gertrude M. White records “had called death in battle sweet,” heartily disagreed with Owen’s conclusions: “Owen and the rest of the broken men rail at the Old Men who sent the young to die: they have suffered cruelly, but in the nerves and not the heart—they haven’t the experience or the imagination to know the extreme human agony …. what Englishman of fifty would-n’t far rather stop the shot himself than see the boys do it for him?” Newbolt thought Owen blind to the sorrow of those who stay at home awaiting news of further casualties. A more recent critic, Adrian Caesar, while believing that Owen’s anti-war message was important in 1917, argues that there is a “tendency in a poem like this to substitute different types of glorification and heroism for those being satirised.” Particularly, Caesar finds that “Dulce et Decorum Est” wants the reader to admire the “sufferings … not only those of the gassed soldiers, but also Owen the poet’s.” In over seventy years of criticism, many see Owen as a little too satisfied in his own righteousness.

But if “Dulce et Decorum Est” is didactic— tending towards preachiness—it is a highly effective sermon. And it is effective for two reasons. First, Owen successfully captures the ugliness of war, and particularly his war—World War I. Second, Owen is able to create new and powerful metaphors to describe war, metaphors that can replace the truisms of heroism and glory that poets had for so long depended on.

In the first stanza, Owen places his reader immediately in the experience of war. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” Nothing is pretty about this world, and the soldiers, far from seeming manly, have been reduced to “beggars” and “hags.” Old women, rather than young men, they cannot stand upright. Instead of victoriously marching they “trudge,” not to battle, but away from it: “on the haunting flares we turned our backs / And towards our distant rest began to trudge.” Having already deflated the sentimental picture of soldiers, Owen in the second stanza turns his eye to what battle and death actually look like: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling, / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling.” In this war, the men desperately try to defend themselves, not from an attacking enemy, but from the almost unseen poison gas deployed by the enemy. They defend themselves not by reaching for their guns to fight but by ineffectively “fumbling” for protective gas masks. The man who fails to reach his mask in time is doomed to die, “guttering, choking, drowning” with “the white of his eyes writhing in his face,” and “the blood / … gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” This vividly described death is far from “sweet.” Some critics suggest that Owen tried for an even less palatable realism in his line about “incurable sores on innocent tongues.” Merryn Williams, for one, believes that in this description, Owen “seems to have been thinking of venereal disease.” This interpretation furthers the idea that Owen’s soldiers are not heroic. Far from being youthful boys, they are corrupted and diseased men. The corruption and the disease, however, spring directly from the experience of war. Soldiers on short leave infamously frequent prostitutes, the implied source of the “incurable sores.”

What is most effective about this poem, however, is that Owen does not merely turn to realism to combat the literary images of the past. Rather he creates new metaphors and images. The narrator of the poem who watches the man being gassed describes, “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” Here Owen leaves the realistic description of guns and mud behind, and instead through figurative language seeks for images to convey the world of war. The green gas becomes the green sea. The man choking on the gas is pictured as drowning in that sea. Next, Owen moves from the battlefield to his nightmares: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” The war is at once real and unreal, happening in life, but repeated in dreams. It is the unnaturalness of war, its nightmarish qualities that Owen wants his readers to see. He does not ask the reader to join him on the battlefield, but to join him in his dreams: “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in.” Dream my dream, says Owen. Bringing his reader with him under the sea, Owen demands that his audience recognizes what it really means to die for one’s country. D. S. R. Welland notes that “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bit “unpolished.” For of course, as he points out, Owen was unable to make his final corrections before his slender book of poetry went to press. Owen died on the battlefield in 1918, one week before World War I ended.

Source: Kimberly Lutz, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.


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Silkin, Jon, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War, St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1998.

Tennyson, Alfred, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Edited by M. H. Abrams, Norton, 1993, pp. 1132-1133.

Welland, D. S. R., Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study, Chatto and Windus, 1960.

White, Gertrude M., ed., Wilfred Owen, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.

Williams, Merryn, “Poetry,” in her Wilfred Owen, Seren Books, 1993, pp. 46-114.

The Works of Wilfred Owen with an Introduction and Bibliography, The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.

For Further Study

McPhail, Helen, and Philip Guest, On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War, LEO Cooper, 1998.

This book is a part of the Battleground Europe series, and provides not only a look at Owen’s development as a poet, but offers a detailed timeline of his military career. Complete with photographs and correspondences, the text serves the historian or traveler as a guide to the battles and events that would be reflected so powerfully in Owen’s poetry.

Welland, D. S. R., Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study, Chatto & Windus, 1960.

This book remains a definitive look at the critical importance of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Welland offers insight into Owen’s earlier, pre-war poetry; analyzes the effect his service in World War I had on his craft; and discusses Owen’s place and reputation in the 20th century.

White, Gertrude M., ed., Wilfred Owen, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.

Much like Welland, White traces Owen’s growth as a poet, discussing his early work and the forces that brought about his poetic maturity. After a detailed study of Owen’s work-including commentary on his early adherence to the Romantic tradition and the qualities, themes, techniques of his mature poetry-White too chronicles the growth of Owen’s reputation following his death.