Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Summary & Analysis

Dulce et Decorum Est: About the poem

The poem Dulce et Decorum Est is a prominent anti-war poem written by Wilfred Owen about the events surrounding the First World War. Owen served as a Lieutenant in the War and felt the soldiers’ pain and the real truth behind war.

In the poem, he creates an hierarchical division of events. First, he discusses the general unwillingness of the soldiers who are actually facing the wrath of war to continue with the war. The soldiers are caught in a sudden gas attack, most probably the chlorine gas which forms a green sea. Owen then moves on to depict the trauma the narrator suffers while he watches his fellow soldier succumb to the deadly gas poisoning and can do nothing. Finally, he makes an outstanding commentary on how the perspectives of people talking about war and the soldiers who are witnessing it differ.

In the poem, Owen presents a graphic picturisation not of the the war but the casualty of war. Such characterisation makes the poem a distinct anti-war poem of all time. Further, in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ we find that it is not confined to being an anti-war poem. Rather, it moves a step ahead to invoke those people who make rallying  cry for youths to enlist to fight war in name of glory and national honour.

This brings out the irony between the idealism of war as heroic by men exhorting youth to join the war and realism of the war as devastating that a soldier of the war face. The use of irony marks Owen’s known form of expression.

He directed the first draft of this poem to Jessie Pope, a civilian propagandist and poetess who rooted on the youths to join war efforts. Then, he  later revised it to mention “a certain Poetess” and ultimately eliminated it in order to rope in a larger audience.

The title of the poem is satiric and a manifestation of the disgust and bitterness the narrator holds for the warmongers. The title appears in the last two lines of the poem. “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.) was a popular Latin phrase at that time. It was originally a part of the Roman Poet Horace’s Ode 3.2. Owen ends the poem with these lines to accentuate the fact that participation in war may not at all be decorous. He was simply unable to justify the sufferings of war. The outbreaks of influenza, or living in trenches with rats for days didn’t seem justifiable. The loss of so many lives, soldiers living in worst conditions, blocking each other’s food supplies didn’t support a humane environment.

About the Poet: Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC (Military Cross) was an English soldier and one of the leading war-poets of the First World War. He is best known for his works which stood contrary to the popular perception of war at the time and the patriotic verses of the writers like Rupert Brooke. Many of his best-known works came out  posthumously including “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Insensibility”, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, “Futility” and “Strange Meeting”.

His early writings show influence of Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley. But, his later ones show a distinct influence of his fellow soldier Siegfried Sassoon, especially his use of satire.

Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action.

Dulce et Decorum Est: Form and Structure

The poem is a combination of two sonnets. Though the spacing is regular between them, it gives a semblance of French ballad. The breaks in the sonnets are irregular and irregularity brings out a sense of irregularity and imperfectness of the world.

In the first sonnet, the poet describes his experiences of the war. In the second sonnet, he becomes analytic with a clear stand. He reflects back on what he experienced and attempts to correct the outlook of others.

The poem rhymes well following patterns like ABAB, CDCD etc. It may look like one written in Iambic Pentameter. But, the stresses are not definite in every line. May be this is another way of Owen to break off from the conventions and traditional ideals of the society and show the world its true face.

Dulce et Decorum Est: Line by line Analysis

The poem develops along three stages – presentation of weary and tired soldiers, then their sudden exposure to bombings and gassing and finally, the horrific after-effect of the war – described so emphatically.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,

The first stanza starts with the description of the tired, war-ridden soldiers. According to the speaker, the soldiers were bent double like old beggars with heavy sacks. Here, ‘double’ points to the fact that the soldiers were not only physically but also mentally exhausted.

They were knock-kneed or physically deformed, coughing like hags. With the use of simile with the word “like” in ‘like old beggars’, and ‘hags’, the poet tries to induce the convincing image of horrid and terrifying experiences of the war.

… we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Exhausted, they dragged on through the sludge nonetheless. The “sludge” may actually depict the trenches the soldiers had to live through during the First World War. Seemingly, these trenches became a part of an extended war-plan. The soldiers wouldn’t turn around even if the haunting flares or bombs exploded near them. They kept on moving to their camps, a place where they could rest. It was certainly ‘distant’ from the war-front.

Here, ‘distant rest’ can also point to subtle description of death as the ultimate destiny for the war-soldiers. Only death could be the real guarantee of rest. The First World War did cost over nine million lives.

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

With this, the speaker continues the description and says the men marched on. They were dog-tired as if they were asleep. Even when many of them lost their boots they limped on their blood-shod feet. They all went lame and blind and drunk with fatigue. They even grew deaf to the noises, hoots of the shells and the bombs around them. Even the five-point-nine calibre shells which dropped behind them seemed to fail to awaken the soldiers.

To make it easy, the soldiers were so tired that they could not even hear the sounds of all the noises, hoots, bombs or the mighty shells.

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. . .

With the second stanza, we move on to the second act or stage where a sudden chaos ensues. The poem suddenly gains pace with the abrupt gas-attack. The soldiers were caught in the frenzy which is marked by ‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!’. They hastened to ready themselves with masks and helmets. While fitting their clumsy helmets in time, they fumbled. But, there was one soldier still yelling out and stumbling, floundering like a man on fire or lime (which burns live tissues).

The ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ provides us with an irony. Surely, the situation was far from being ecstasy. It only describes the picture of how tired and jaded they were. The chaos followed the fatigue and presented itself as ecstasy.

With the use of simile, the poet takes help from outside to actually describe what he was feeling. It is as if he cannot deal with the event head-on. So, he sought similarity with hags to minimize the pain he was feeling – the pain of a life getting lost right in front of his eyes.

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

The speaker then says that through the hazy window-panes and the dim, thick green light, he saw his comrade drowning under a green sea. The gas-attack produced the “green” sea that his eyes saw.

With the repetition of the word ‘green’, the poet paints a gruesome picture of how overwhelming the scene must have been.

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

The poet stresses upon the dreams the speaker is having in the third stanza. In all his dreams, the same soldier plunges at the speaker. And, like always, he can do nothing but look at him helplessly.

Here, ‘helpless sight’ underscores the sense of helplessness he felt at not being able to help his fellow soldier when he succumbed to the gas-attack. As in past, he was unable to do anything about it and was guilt-ridden, the same is reflected in his dreams.

The man in his dreams is always guttering, choking and drowning. Here, ‘guttering’ may point to gurgling like water draining down a gutter or the sounds in the throat of the choking man.

The rhyme scheme of this stanza follows the second one. Quite possibly, it highlights how the past (second stanza) is affecting his present (third stanza).

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;

Now with this stanza, the poem enters its final stage where the speaker takes over the narrative. Here, as discussed earlier, ‘you’ is meant to point out to  the extended audience Owen tries to show the real face of the war to. Here, he attempts to convince us to see the war as if we were there.

Yet again, the pace of the poem slows down. The whole stanza is a single complex sentence comprising of some conditional (if) clauses. The motive is to say that we the readers could feel the poet’s agony and support his point if we were present in the battlefield and saw the horrific happenings there.

Clearly, through this stanza, he wants the reader to feel the pain he went through. But he knows there is no way that we the readers can feel the same. It is just not possible to feel the same from afar. So, everything from now can only be hypothetical.

Owen continues to exhort the readers to prove his point. He claims that we the readers could feel the same pity of war if we could follow the wagon that they (speaker and his comrades) flung the soldier’s body in, or watch the dead soldier’s lifeless white eyes or his pitiful face in an overwhelming (smothering) dream.

Here, the poet has used expressions like ‘white eyes’, ‘writhing in his face’, ‘hanging face’ and ‘devil’s sick of sin’ to express how horrible the dream could be.

Here is a simile in comparing the lifeless face to a devil’s sick of sin. Again, when we notice keenly we find the use of sibilance with ‘face’, ‘devil’s’,  ‘sick’ and ‘sin’ in the last line above.

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.

Further, the poet invokes the readers and calls them his friend (‘my friend’) while carrying on with his logic. He opines, if we could hear the soldier’s voice gargling blood from his lung corrupted by the gas at every jolt the wagon experienced sounding as “obscene as cancer” and bitter as cud, then we would not say with such high zest and conviction to the keen children desirous of glory, “the old lie” of “Dulce et decorum est”.

Here, ‘high zest’ is a satirical take to point out the idealistic conviction and enthusiasm of people sitting back home. Nonetheless, it brings in light the hypocrisy of such men and women who are far away from the war and unaware of the true reality of the war.

He clearly calls “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”) an old lie. Even when he maintains that he is not unwilling to sacrifice his life for his country, he simply doesn’t believe in the old conviction that it is the sweet and fitting thing to do. Needless to say, he didn’t gain any sweet or fitting, worthwhile experience from the war.

So, this anti-war poem goes on to paint the tragedy of war and to convince the leaders against trying to infuse false patriotism in youths. And, unlike many other war-poems, this is based on real stocktaking, real knowledge and real assessment of the situation.