Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'
Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'
British Library Add. MS 43720, f.21
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Wilfred Owen is among the most famous poets of the First World War. This is the opening of a poem written in his own hand while he served as a soldier in the appalling conditions of the trenches. 'Dulce et Decorum Est' gives a chilling account of the futility of war, engendered from intense personal experience. It was composed during a burst of extraordinary creativity between the summer of 1917 and Owen's death in the autumn of the following year.
Who was Wilfred Owen?
Owen was born into a family of committed Christians on 18 March 1893, at Oswestry in Shropshire. His father worked on the railway, but Wilfred was determined to be a poet by his late teens. He worked as a student teacher while preparing for the entrance examination for London University. In the event, he was unable to take up his university place because of the family's lack of money to support him. He went instead to France, earning a living by teaching.
When the First World War began Owen was working as a private tutor to a well-off family in the Pyrenees. Reading newspapers sent out by his mother persuaded him that his duty lay in joining the war effort. He returned to England and enlisted on 21 October 1915 at the age of 22. Just over a year later, he was sent to fight on the western front.
The war forced him to face a conflict between his Christian beliefs and his role as a soldier. "I am more and more a Christian," he wrote to his mother in May 1917. "Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill".
Soon after, Owen was invalided out of active duty. Suffering from shell-shock and fever, and wrestling with his moral dilemmas, he was sent to recuperate at Craiglockart, a war hospital near Edinburgh. There he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to develop his war poetry.
Owen was returned to the front line in August of 1918. He seized a German machine-gun emplacement and killed a number of the enemy - an act of bravery that won him the Military Cross. But it was also a deed that crossed a moral divide: Owen had reached the painful conclusion that war necessitated the suspension of his Christian principles.
He threw himself into combat, often recklessly. While his unit was crossing a canal near the village of Ors in pursuit of the retreating German forces, Owen was shot and killed by the water's edge. He was only 25 - and the war was just seven days from its end.
What was the First World War?
The First World War, sometimes called The Great War, takes its name from the fact that it was the first conflict involving countries from all over the globe.
It began in 1914, when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a young Serbian nationalist upset the fragile balance between two European power-blocks: Britain, France and Russia on one side; Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. The conflict escalated to include Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, Japan and the USA.
On the western front, between Germany and France, armies on both sides dug networks of trenches to defend their positions. Ground was won and lost only a few miles at a time in series of battles that cost millions of lives. Conditions in the trenches were appalling. Disease was rampant.
This deadlock lasted for years, despite devastating new weapons: troops faced tanks for the first time, and bombing by airplane and airship. Another deadly invention was chemical warfare. 'Mustard' gas, a poisonous gas named from its smell, blistered the skin and lungs, causing a slow and agonising death. The war finally ended on 11 November 1918, when Germany conceded defeat.
What does the title mean?
The title is inspired by a well-known quote from one of the 'Odes' of Horace, the ancient Roman poet. In full, the Latin motto reads: 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', meaning 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. Horace's slogan of the glories of dying for the fatherland echoed down the ages.
At the time of the First World War, the poet Owen Seaman, who was editor of Punch magazine, wrote patriotic verses under the title, 'Pro Patria' that urged young men to the fight - though he himself, being 53 years old, remained as one "whose burden is to watch and wait." Those at a less comfortable distance from the fighting saw it differently. In his revelation of the reality of war Owen uses the Roman motto ironically, calling it "the old lie".
What's the poem about?
"My subject is War, and the pity of War", Owen wrote in a draft of the preface to his intended volume of poems. The collection was intended to convey the disgusting horror of war to an ill-informed and largely complacent audience in England.
'Dulce et Decorum Est' describes a mustard gas attack on a group of war-weary soldiers. Owen's painfully direct language combines gritty realism with an aching sense of compassion. His despair at the crumbling of the moral order - the world's and perhaps his own - are expressed in phrases such as "froth-corrupted lungs', "sores on innocent tongues" and his description of the dying man's face "like a devil's sick of sin".
The poem is short, just 28 lines, but its exceptionally vivid imagery packs a punch that creates a lasting and disturbing impression on the reader. The text of the published version is as follows:
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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.