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Dulce Et Decorum Est...

Updated on January 9, 2009


"Dulce Et Decorum Est" is a fantastic poem by World War I poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). A poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen was first encouraged into recording his war experiences in the form of poetry as part of his therapy while recovering from shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. In fact, it is there he met fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who inspired Owen to write and who later became an editor of his first works.

In the build up to World War 1 and in fact in the minds of many patriarchs, it was considered a noble thing to fight (and die) in service of your country. In many ways it still is, however at that time there was a gross public misconception of the "gloriousness" of war. It was something that was constantly reinforced by posters aimed at drafting young men into the army to fight. Owen uses strong imagery to portray the reality of war, often with significant compassion for not only his comrades but his enemies as well ("Strange Meeting").

As tragic as the Great War was itself, Wilfred Owen was killed in action on 4th November 1918, one week before Armistice Day, the end of the first world war in 1918, aged 25. 

Dulce Et Decorum Est


From the very first line of the poem, we are given a description of the condition of the soldiers. They aren't smiling - they are bent over with the weight of their packs on their soldiers, like beggars. They aren't excited or energetic or in a good state of health - they are tired, "knock-kneed", "coughing like hags" and "trudging" (essentially fast "limping") through muck. The men have gone days without sleep, but they are still carrying on "blood-shod". Although they are so "drunk with fatigue" but still have to head towards their trench which is very far away, vaguely aware of the "haunting flares" trailing the shells as they are shot through the air behind them, accompanied by a "hooting" sound. They have become deafened by the continuous nearby explosions of the gas shells that they are now heard only "dropping softly behind".

"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!" Someone had realised that a shell had gone off nearby and was telling the others. There is an "ecstasy of fumbling" as the soldiers try to find their helmets and put them on in time. It's a matter of life and death. One person didn't seem to find his helmet in time. Owen spotted him "through the misty panes" of his helmet and among the the "thick green light" of the gas. The gas, most likely chlorine gas which has a greenish color, would have destroyed the lung tissue as it was breathed in.

The next two lines are isolated as if to focus your attention on the horrific sight that Owen is witnessing in front of him. A man, a comrade, who wasn't able to put his helmet on in time was now "flound'ring" around, "guttering", "choking", "drowning" in the "green sea" of gas before a completely helpless Owen. There is nothing he can do for him now. Never in his dreams did Owen imagine he would be looking at someone being killed in front of him - not shot, but dying a slow, horrible death.

As if that sight alone was not bad enough, the poem continues to describe the effects of the gas on the fallen soldier who has now been flung onto the back of a wagon which Owen follows. His "white eyes" are "writhing in his face", his "hanging face" as he squirms in pain. Every time the wagon jolts over a rock, the blood in the man's "froth-corrupted lungs" makes a gargling sound that is "obscene as cancer". The mention of "cud" implies that Owen has vomited in his mouth and had to swallow it back down again as he keeps going on, much like a cow swallows grass then later "vomits" it back up into its mouth where it chews it again to digest it further.

These powerful scenes are strong depictions of the conditions and reality of war. They have been emblazoned into Owen's mind, the atrocities replayed over and over again as he remembers his friend, another human being, killed in front of him and his inability to do anything about it. After giving us this reality, he now appeals to our own sense of compassion. "You would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory..." - because a lot of the men were very young, some not even 18 that may have lied to get enlisted so they can fight gloriously for their country.

"...The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". (It is sweet and glorious to die for one's country). There is no glory about it. Wilfred Owen has just described to us all the glory of war - poverty, fatigue, ill health, killing, dying and more specifically the traumatic experience of watching another person die slowly right in front of you.

The next time you go to an Armistice Day memorial service (or if you are from Australia or New Zealand, an ANZAC Day service) try to imagine the hardship and traumatic, horrific experiences our fathers or grandfathers must have gone through - the years of suffering coupled with the human cost of war - in order to protect our countries and our way of life so that we may live in peace.

The Current War

As someone coming from a Palestinian background, born and raised in Australia, relatively lucky and fortunate to have no experience of generations of hatred or war, I think the current situation in the Middle East is atrocious and just plain wrong - from BOTH sides. War does not solve anything...

Lest we forget. 


Submit a Comment
  • bigprawn profile image


    10 years ago

    This is a poignant piece of writing about a poignant piece of writing. Nothing too ground-breaking is revealed but if your hub takes this masterpiece of poetry to at least one person who has never read it then I would consider you to have been successful.

    As further reading try "The Ghost Road" series by Pat Barker. The first one is set in Craiglockhart itself at the time when Sassoon and Owen were patients there.

    The Great War was the war to end all wars - perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it didn't.


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