Dulce Et Decorum Est
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«Dulce et decorum est», Wilfred Owen (1917, 1920)
«Dulce et decorum est» is a poem written by British poet Wilfred Owen, during World War one, in 1917. The translation of the Latin title is: «It is sweet and proper». The completed sentence is as follows: «It is sweet and proper to die for ones country». This forms, what the writer refers to as, «The old Lie». The poem holds a strong criticism towards the conventional view of war at that written time. I shall now comment briefly on that times traditional ideas of war and heroism. Further on, I shall have a concise look at some information about the author and his context. Then, I would like to put to light the perception of war introduced by Owen in this poem, and thereby, show how the poem could, in several ways, said to be an attack on traditional ideas of war, warfare and heroism of that day.
By the first decade of the 20th century, the official attitude towards war had been positive. People did not have a realistic view of the war. They did not know much about either the warfare techniques used on the battlefields, or anything about how their soldiers died. News was heavily censured. The war was merely seen as a wonderful opportunity for young men to show their courage. The portrait of a soldier was of a hero, fighting beautifully and honorably for their country. Men who wanted to join the war had to enlist as volunteers. The authorities made it quite difficult for men not to enlist, by the use of propaganda, making war out to be for the honourable men. There were pro-war slogans at every corner, which created a common notion that men who did not enlist were the opposite of the ones who couragesly went to fight. They became cowards in the eyes of society. The men were not only pressured by the authorities, they met pressure from the women as well. One of the aspects of this was the message of the white feather worn by women during the time of war. The white feather bore the question of why the men were not in uniform, fighting for their country. By the little knowledge of the war, few knew what to expect, and the outcome of World War one came as a shock for many. No one thought it would go on for so long and to the extent it did. Many, many men died.
Wilfred Owen was born in England in 1893. At a young age he knew he wanted to become a poet, but he felt pressured by the war-propaganda to become a soldier. He enlisted in the Artists Rifles and participated in World War one. He did not write much poetry of importance until he witnessed action in France in 1917. In spite of that experience, he felt distant to the war. But he soon started to become critical to the war, and started writing disparagingly about it. Owen had personally witnessed the inhuman conditions at the frontline. He wanted to tell people the truth about how the war was truly like, and show what a wrong impression people had on it. By depicting the horror and cruelty of the war and warfare in «Dulce et decorum Est», Owen showed how far the common belief of war was from the truth.
«Dulce et Decorum Est» is a war poem. The poem was originally written in dedication to Jessie Pope, who was a propagandist for the War. But Owen clearly thought that it would be relevant to others as well, as it also speaks to a greater audience. The setting is a battlefield in World War one, and the narrator is Owen himself. It starts off with a group of soldiers retreating from the frontline. The soldiers are wounded, and they are slowly trudging through mud, away from the «gas-shells dropping softly behind» them. Suddenly, they are hit by an attack of gas-shells. The soldiers manage to put on their protective equipment, which would be their helmets, just in time. But, «someone was still yelling out and stumbling». There is one of the soldiers, who did not manage to escape the danger, and got hit by the gas-shells. The next lines is a description of this man, dying. The speaker, Owen, is haunted by this image, and by the thought of this happening without him being able to stop it; «before my helpless sight». After telling that they «flung» the dying soldier in a wagon, there follows a vivid explanation of what the gas is doing to him; «…blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs». The poem ends with a plea to stop telling «The old lie: Dulce et decorum Est Pro Patria mori».
Through the text, Owen uses a lot of horrific and vivid imagery. This is used to give a realistic description of a soldiers first hand experience of war, and the physical and mental state the soldiers were in. The news about the war was heavily censured, Owen, however, did not censure any of the information given in the poem. We are given an authentic situation and real war-conditions.
As early as in the first line of the poem, we can see the attack of the traditional ideas about war and heroism. Owen starts off by portraying, what probably was a majority of young men, as «Bent double, like old beggars under sacks». The speaker uses the adjective old to describe young men. Starting the poem with this contrasting description immediately corrects the picture people had of soldiers standing erect, and fighting proudly and heroically. The picture is quite the opposite, as he continues to describe them as «knock-kneed». Adding to the description, Owen says that the men are wounded, «limping on, bloodshot». The men were battle-weary and had most likely been days without any rest. Even so, they still were forced to go on to escape death.
The setting of the battlefield, and the means of trenchwarfare, would have been quite different from what was thought of it as well. The soldiers were walking through mud in what was called no-mans land, which was between the protective trenches. In one of the letters Owen sent home to his mother, he describes no-mans land as: «…dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water…» These conditions were surely not mentioned in the news. While having to struggle through that noncooperative landscape, the soldiers had to dodge the many dangers present as well. The flares were «haunting» them back to their gropes. The use of the word «haunting», may imply that the soldiers were chased back, contrary to the picture of soldiers always marching heroically forwards.
Owen gives another punch to the attack of the common notion of war, by letting the readers in on how the war emotionally affected the soldiers. The word «old» could apply to the soldiers psyche as well as their physical state. The word «young» connotes hope, strength, life etc., while «old» may describe the soldiers loss of hope,