Poetry may require an immense effort from the reader if they want to grasp the meanings implied by the poet. However, on certain occasions, a poet may strive to convey a direct, explicit message. This case is applicable to Dulce et Decorum est poem by Wilfred Owen. Written from the perspective of a soldier who witnesses how his comrade suffers after the gas attack, the poem reveals horrific realities of war, hypocritically omitted in “patriotic” rhetoric.
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Wilfred Owen contests an ancient poetic line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“death for one’s homeland is sweet and honorable”) in a viscerally realistic setting of the World War I battlefield. His similes deconstruct images of militaristic propaganda from the very first stanza. Soldiers are not proud heroes — they are miserable, “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags (Owen, lines 1-2). War is a tiresome business, and soldiers are exhausted to the point of losing their sense of reality. They have become, as the poet speaks metaphorically, “Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hoots / Of gas-shells dropping softly behind” (Owen, 7-8). Soldiers in the trenches are almost oblivious to the world as a deadly cloud of gas approaches their position.
Poisonous gas is merciless; there is little to no hope of survival for those who could not fit helmets in time. The narrator delivers terrifying details of how one of his comrades was helplessly “yelling out and stumbling / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” (Owen, 11-12). A green sea of gas swallows an unfortunate soldier and inflicts gruesome injuries, while others cannot do anything to help him. Nothing can be farther from a heroic death pro patria than this horror. In the last stanza, Owen appeals to the senses of all readers, especially those who might be imagining war as a glorious event:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in…
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
as little as 3 hours
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (17-18, 25-28)
In the end, war brings misery to a vast majority of participants. The poet stresses one simple truth — death for the country will most likely be gruesome, not sweet. Deliberately omitting or denying this truth is hypocrisy and a blatant lie.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum est.” Poetry Foundation, 1921, Web.