Dulce et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen

Background

This poem by Wilfred Owen was composed sometime in 1917 and published posthumously in 1920. The title is taken from Latin lines by the poet Horace which means “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland”. Like most of Owen’s other poetry, this one too bemoans the senseless loss of young lives in a futile war. This poem vividly describes the effects of a gas bomb. The mustard gas bombs corroded the body from inside and soldiers died as though by drowning as it filled the lungs with fluid.

Metaphorical inference

The structure of the poem enables the poet to present the action in different ways. In the first part, the action is shown as happening in the present and the poet is physically present beside the dying soldier. In the second part, there is detachment as though the poet is standing back and viewing the events unfolding without being involved in the action. Mustard gas was used with lethal effect in the First World War. The ill fitting gas helmets sometimes let in gas. At times (as in this poem) the soldiers could not put on their gas masks in time and died a horrible death.
Using ‘sound’ words, Owen is able to convey the horror of death by gas poisoning. If the advocates of war who exhorted young men to join up saw the horror of war at close quarters, they would not say “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

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Summary

The poem opens with the heart wrenching picture of soldiers trudging through the mire to the relative safety of the rest. Lack of food and rest had made them into “walking dead”. They were hardly aware of what was happening around them when they hear gas bombs going off. There is a scramble to get their gas masks on. One young soldier cannot put on his mask and inhales the gas. The effects of the gas are instantaneous. The poet watches his companion struggle as though drowning.
The second part has the poet recalling the suffering of the fellow soldier as the gas corrodes his insides. If anyone were to see that sight, may be even in a dream, he or she would never enthusiastically say “Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro patria mori”. That sentiment is empty.

Analysis

Stanza 1

Owen’s paints a pathetic picture of soldiers bent double with fatigue, ill clad, some with bare feet, trudging towards their rest. Some had fallen asleep while walking, so tired were they. Many of them were sick; they had a hacking cough and some had bleeding feet. They were lost to what was happening around them, missing even the hooting sound of gas bombs falling.

Stanza 2

Suddenly there is the realization of gas bombs falling and exploding. Someone calls out a warning to don the gas masks. Many of them don’t fit well. But one soldier can’t pull it on in time and gets affected by the noxious, lethal gas. The green fumes from the gas bomb spread around making it appear like a green sea in which the unfortunate soldier was drowning.

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Stanza 3

The image of the dying soldier racks the poet’s nightmarish dreams when he appears to be choking and drowning.

Stanza 4

This stanza elaborates the suffering of the stricken soldier. If any one were to, in a nightmare, walk behind the wagon into which the soldier was hastily flung and see the terrible effects of the gas on the man’s body and hear the gurgling produced as blood spewed out of his lungs, with sores dotting his tongue, no one would, to the young generation hungry for glory, utter the empty phrase: Dulce et Decorum Est /Pro patria mori.

Overall impression

Weighed against the horrors of war, the high sounding phrase “Dulce et Decorum Est” sounds like romantic nonsense. There is nothing glorious about loss of a whole generation of young men. This is what the poet aims to convey. Even without being a pacifist, the reader can understand that war is senseless violence.