Wilfred Owen: “Dulce et Decorum Est”

I studied the British soldier Wilfred Owen in a class on 20th century literature. He is one of the foremost poets of World War 1, but only four of his poems were published while he was alive. He volunteered to fight in the war and his poetry was part of his effort to care for his men. It was his service to them. During his service he won the Military Cross. He was killed in battle in 1918.

His poetry is unflinchingly honest and his style carries with it the impact of a bomb. Reading his poetry for the first time, I was nearly moved to tears. This poem, Dulce et Decorum Est holds a special place in my heart. As a child of the Post-9/11 world, I’ve been hearing about the importance of war since I was 10. More than half of my life has been spent in the shadow of conflict. When I was young, I believed the war was really about protecting our way of life. When I read this poem, I was made aware of the lie. We no longer say that “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Now the lie is “Our Way of Life.” It is fitting that the man who made me rethink this was himself a soldier and knew what he was talking about.

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,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

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.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
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;
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.

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is a quote from the poet Horace, written in the time before Christ. It is a line from the “Odes” and the section goes like this:

To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death’s darts e’en flying feet o’ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake

For more information on Wilfred Owen, The Wilfred Owen Association has a biography, criticism and his poems.

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