Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen: Summary and Analysis

Dulce et Decorum est is one of the well-known anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen written in 1917 and published posthumously in 1920. His war poems are famous for horrific imagery and vehement criticism of war and its aftermath. In this poem, the poet sadly and ironically disagrees with the age old message that war is glorious and it is great honor to die for the sake of one's motherland.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

The title is taken from Latin poet Horace which caters the meaning: it is sweet and honorable to die for the motherland

In the first part of the poem, the speaker narrates the event that had happened in the past. As the soldiers were going towards the rest from the battlefield, they were quite tired and they had been marching asleep. They had gone lame but they were limping on. In the meantime, there is the gas attack and the speaker sees someone floundering in the mud. This event of the past haunts the memory of the speaker. That floundering man constantly comes in his dream. By referring to the past event and the dream of the present, he is trying to capture the trauma of war in the psyche of the individual. The image of the floundering man plays a vital role in shaping the attitude of the soldier towards the war. In the image of the floundering man, he closely observes the inhumanity of the war.

That image of floundering makes the speaker rethink about war and patriotism. Addressing to his friend Jessie Pope, who has written many patriotic and enthusiastic poems, the speaker request not to repeat the old lie that is nice to die for the nation. Children are very ardent for glory and they might see heroism in killing others. They must not be taught that one becomes patriotic by dying for the nation. The actual cost of the war is quite precious and expensive, we must substitute the sacrifice based patriotism with the contribution based patriotism. A nation does not need anyone who dies for her rather she needs dynamic, energetic, creative and contributing individual. If patriotism is defined in terms of the contribution, violence would be stopped then and there.

The poem is written in the style of French ballade poetic form, a medieval Renaissance French style verse which is written in three eight line stanzas each with a consistent meter and a particular rhyme scheme. Owen brings this poetic form, but distorts it and breaks some poetic conventions. By breaking its patterns and rhyming style, the poet highlights the disturbing and frenzied events being told in the poem. The first part of the poem is written in eight line stanzas and six line stanzas. The second part of the poem is composed in the two line stanza and twelve line stanza. The first part is in the present tense and all the actions are shown as if it is happening right now and everyone is reacting upon it, but the second part is narrated from a distance and even a recollected bitter past.

As Dulce et Decorum est is a reactionary poem, Owen vividly draws terrific and mind disturbing picture of war and its after effects in the mind of people. He is so annoyed with the war that he addresses his fellow poet Jessie and requests her not to encourage the youth to fight and die for the nation by writing patriotic poems. He shows his extreme anger by distorting the conventional French poetic form to illustrate the breakdown of the age old established system.

To support the theme of violence and inhuman nature of war, Owen uses horrific and striking imagery in the poem. The traditional expectation and glory of the war is reversed in the poem through the use of imagery. At the beginning of the second stanza, when someone says ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’ the terror starts. The use of capital letters and the exclamation marks enforce the horror and the sudden attack at the Frontline. The brave soldiers are reduced to ‘like old beggars’ and ‘coughing like hags’ and their dignity is hurt. The pain of the burning soldier is merely ‘like a man in the fire or lime’ and his falling is described ‘as under a green sea’. The fallen soldier’s face is ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’ who is horrified by the sudden gas attack and who cannot move further to survive. The effect of the gas in the soldier and in his body is narrated as ‘bitter as the cud/of vile incurable sores’. All these imagery creates a terrific and unwanted scene of the battlefield where the soldiers are badly bleeding and coughing just for the sake of one’s pride for the nation which Owen finds too savage and brutal.

The use of the word ‘ecstasy’ in the poem is somehow bitter irony: the soldiers are ecstatic in the poem not because of the high pleasure derived from sacrificing their life for the nation, but with the pain and panic they face in the battle field with the sudden gas attack.  In the last stanza, the poet ironically addresses his patriotic friend Jessie and tells her if she too could see a dream of soldiers falling and groaning in the gas attack in so called glorious war, then she would stop writing and encouraging with the ‘old lie’ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Related Topics

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Wilfred Owen: Biography