Dulce et Decorum Est
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 flound’ring 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.
The poem is written as a harsh, but ultimately fair criticism of the atrocities of war. The poet wrote this whilst hospitalized after experiencing fighting in the trenches of Northern France in World War I. The soldiers in a languid, drowsy state march slowly, shell-shocked by the traumas of war and losing touch with their own senses. He recounts in graphic detail being caught in the noxious gases of chemical warfare and watching one of his fellow soldiers unable to fit the gas helmet on in time. This man, stumbling, yelling and screaming suffers a slow painful death, choking in the cruel toxic gas. This image of the man dying before the persona's eyes, with him unable to help, stays with him in his dreams. This graphic, traumatic sight leads the persona to a blunt conclusion. Having seen this man die before his eyes, his lungs corrupted by the chemicals, he finds no true glory or goodness in martyrdom for one's country. The image of an innocent man needlessly killed in his country's conflict drives the persona to rebuke the hackneyed maxim 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.' He doesn't believe that any child searching for glory should ever be told this; a shameful falsehood that death on the battlefield is 'sweet.' Owen does not hold back in this criticism, and sincerely concludes the gruesome death of war is not sweet, nor are these innocent lives lost in such traumatic ways reflective of a joy in patriotic martyrdom.
The themes of the poem include war, propaganda, patriotism, trauma and martyrdom. The mood of the poem is pitiful, and the tone is both critical and pitiful.
"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,"
The soldiers are slouched over, lacking energy and vivacity as though encumbered by a literal weight. The poet uses a simile in "like old beggars under sacks," showing that just like beggars weighed down by heavy sacks and unable to stand up straight due to old age, the soldiers are bent over in their slow trudge, fatigued by the spoils of war.
"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."
This line begins with an alliteration 'knock kneed' continuing a theme that progresses throughout the poem- the description of the disfiguration of the soldiers. They definitely didn't go to war looking like this, but they have been spent, and their bodies are reeling from the deleterious effects of war. Another simile is used here 'coughing like hags' comparing their dry, hacking coughing to that of an old woman (hag).
Now, they turn their backs on the 'haunting flares,' showing that they are leaving the battlefield now, with its distressing explosions (flares) and gunshots. Finally, they can trudge to their 'distant rest' away from the agonies of war.
"Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod."
The poet uses alliteration once again with the repetition of the 'm' sound: "men marched asleep." The 'm' sound is often associated with the mindless humming of a person severely tired or groggy. Thus, the drowsy way in which the men walked is communicated both with the alliteration and the line itself, as their trudging makes it seem as though they are asleep and merely sleepwalking.
Many men are said to have 'lost their boots,' which may be a euphemism for losing their feet in explosions. Nonetheless, they limp onward 'blood-shod.' Shod here means to be fit with a shoe (like a horse). So, having no boots (and maybe missing a foot), their feet are instead covered with blood.
"All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind."
The soldiers are exhausted to such a point that they are losing their sense of touch, sight and even hearing as they are intoxicated with enervation and fatigue. Their reactions and senses dulled by tiresome battle on the frontlines, some are even unable to hear the gas-shells thrown out behind them.
"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,"
Toxic gas, the cruel weapon of chemical warfare used by countries during WWI, begins to spew out of the shells, and they must fumble madly to fit their gas masks over their heads to survive the gas attack. The poet uses 'ecstasy of fumbling' to communicate the frenzy the soldiers are in to try get their helmets on.
"But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—"
Not everyone is able to slimly avoid breathing the noxious gas by slipping on their helmets- one man still struggles amidst the toxic fumes. He is yelling, stumbling and floundering about, showing distress and agony. The poet uses simile again here in 'flound'ring like a man in fire' to compare his struggling, stumbling, plunging movements to that of a man doused in flames.
"Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning."
The poet uses vivid visual imagery to convey what the persona is seeing. Through the misty panes of the eye-piece his gas mask and the thick green tint of the gas surrounding them, he sees the struggling man stumbling about like he is drowning under a green sea. The simile 'as under a green sea.' the thick green light around them is compared to a green sea. In the same way the sea is a thick body of water surrounding the person submerged in it, the gas has surrounded them and seems as thick as the water in the ocean.
"In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."
This graphic image seems to haunt the persona, as he speaks about it 'in all [his] dreams.' The persona is helpless, unable to assist this man dying before him. He is guttering (tears streaming down his face, a symptom of inhaling toxic gas), choking and drowning- the poet paints a gloomy, disturbing image that communicates his critical view of war and its casualties.
"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;"
The poet comes to the final stanza, where he intends to drive home his point. The horrific image illustrated previously leads directly into the gloomy atmosphere created here. They throw the unfortunate man in a wagon, and the poet describes his eyes using a personification: 'eyes writhing in his face.' His eyes are said to be writhing, moving randomly, in the same way a human twists and squirms, contorting their body in pain.
A simile in 'his hanging face like a devil's sick of sin' compares the unnatural appearance of his face to that of a devil horrified of its own evil.
"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—"
The poet continues the description of the horrific state of the man. Blood gargles from his lungs, corrupted by froth from the noxious chemicals. It is described with a brief simile 'obscene as cancer,' comparing the obscenity and fatality of this blood emerging from his lungs to that of cancer. He describes it now with another simile, comparing the blood to the bitter, regurgitated, half-digested material cattle ruminate/chew on. The sores on his tongue are incurable, and he is now victim to this lifelong affliction despite his innocence.
"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."
The poet now concludes with the scathing remark that, if you were able to experience those atrocities, the gruesome corruption of an innocent man's lungs drowning amidst the sea of green noxious gas- you definitely would not tell children the hackneyed maxim "dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori." This line is taken from the Odes (III.2.13) by the Roman poet Horace. The line translates: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland." The poet sees no true glory or anything sweet in such a painful, excruciating death.