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.
Is it ‘sweet and fitting, to die for your country?’
That is what some poets believed before and during the Great War, the 1914-1918 war in Europe. One of them, called Jessie Pope, fervently promoted the war as something every man should join up for, promoting the bravado of going to war, the camaraderie of the soldier and the joy of service. But she did not have to stand, or sit, or even sleep, in a first world war trench and see rats gnawing at the rotting flesh of her friends, or see the lice jumping on those near to her. She did not have to see and smell and taste the horrors of modern warfare, where gases were used for the first time and so, Wilfred Owen took a swipe at poets like Jessie Pope when he penned this brilliant poem.
[typical poster at the time of the war]
It is, without doubt, in my mind, the single best war poem I have ever had the privilege to read, study and teach and I have done all three. It is something ingrained into my psyche because my Grandfather who was in the KOYLI, the King’s Own Light Infantry, was wounded in Mons, recovered in Malta and was then stationed on the Somme just after the battle of the Somme began, which is where this poem emerges from. The sad fact that Wilfred Owen was killed in action a week or so before the end is so sad, for what else would he have penned, had he lived to survive the war?
Let’s take it line by line and try to unpack it, something I do with classes, in groups, giving them an equal amount of lines as much as possible. The first thing Owen does is paint an image and it is not a very nice one either, for each of the soldiers in this picture are disfigured, and “bent double, like old beggars under sacks.” This is about as powerful an image as I can think of to make the reader reel back in shock. It is a tactic used by the poet to grab the attention of the reader, but just as much as he paints the picture of the soldiers, he then gives them actions and sounds to go with their hideous figures. They are also “knock-kneed,” wobbling therefore from side to side in abject agony, “coughing like hags,” like old witches in cartoons we are so used to. Something is making them cough up their lungs, literally!
Owen extends their actions by telling us they “cursed through sludge,” offering their swear words to the enemy and to their Generals, who no doubt were sitting back in the luxury of their mansions nearby but never in the firing line. Oh no, they could not do that, for that was too risky. None of this ‘leading from the front’ routine of Hollywood films in those days. No, these men walked from place to place and as they did so there were sounds all around them, sounds of “the haunting flares” as they “turned our backs and towards [their] distant rest began to trudge.” These men are weary and worn out beyond measure, have more than likely been marching for some time and by now, are more than just tired.
Then, if that is not enough of a description to make the reader reel back, we see that simple tiredness does not describe the image in the mind of the reader, for we are told that “men marched asleep.” Simple tiredness does not describe this pain they are in. I have been in the Army and taken part in night time maneuvers, which scared the hell out of me. Imagine gunfire from three feet away coming at you in the dark, with yellow flame coming from the muzzle blank and you get the picture. I can assure you that by the end of that first night, I was exhausted, but these men had been at this for months by the time Owen writes this poem. He says that “many had lost their boots, but limped on, blood-shod.” Just because you lost your boots did not mean you were stuck where you were. No, you still had to move forward and follow orders. If you could, you took the boots from a dead soldier and wore his, if indeed there was anything left of him to see. Some sank into the mud when dead. Others were eaten by the rats who found their way there.
Those that could not find alternative boots “went lame” and could not walk more than a few paces but instead of sending them all off to a field hospital, they would force the men to stay there in that abject pain and agony, going “blind; drunk with fatigue” and “deaf even to the hoots of gas-shells dropping softly behind” or as one translation of the poem has, from large ‘five-nines’ that were shelling their position.
It is horrible indeed and a direct, written slant at anyone who thinks that warfare is heroic, but then we get to the gory bits, if you unpack them properly as a teacher, the bits I love to teach just before lunch. Aren’t I a naughty teacher? But I love this poem for all its linguistic beauty and infinite gore. For who else would in the next line remind me of a time when I was in Basic Training in the Army, when I was wearing my NBC Suit [Nuclear, Biological, Chemical] and the Corporal gave us the order to get the masks on inside thirty seconds, for we were about to be gassed. When he left, we needed no second bidding. Owen reminds me of that when he writes those repeated words of “Gas! GAS!” [notice please, one is lower case and the other capital letters – done for a reason] followed eagerly by “Quick, boys!” as there begins the “ecstasy of fumbling” that exists in the mind of the soldier who is “fitting the clumsy [helmet] just in time.” It was a call to action that phrase “gas, gas, gas” and still is used, but these soldiers, some of them teenagers, were subject to Mustard Gas in the Great War, shelled by the Germans onto the British trenches [and probably vice versa too] and so, when you heard that call, you rushed to get the thing on, or the mustard gas got inside you as you breathed it in. What it did to you is gross indeed.
[British Army Green NBC Suit – NATO Forces]
Now when I was gassed, it was only C.S Gas, quite harmless in a way compared to Mustard Gas and any other gas they used back then, for that gas would do some very nasty things to your inside of the chest cavity. It would make your lungs gargle and go frothy as you coughed up the contents and lining of the lung. I have had pneumonia in 2014 and that was not pretty when the hospital put me on a drip and I eventually hacked up the contents, but the memory lingers and makes me think of how bad it would have been for those brave lads in those trenches.
They are brave lads indeed, who are “still was yelling out and stumbling,” unable to get the mask on in time and “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.” Have you ever seen those films where the stuntman gets set alight and then goes for a stumble a few paces? Well that is the image here, but instead of flames, it is gas they can see as they look through the pane of glass in the mask. It appears misty and murky as “dim through the misty panes and thick green light” the ones who have got their gas masks on are able to view those who have not and they look like they are “under a green sea” drowning as they view the horror before them. Owen says he “saw him drowning.” It is as if Owen, when writing this line, is remembering the event and depicting it in as closest detail as he possibly can, not just to be gory, or make a point, but also to prove to those who think it is fit and right to die for one’s country that they are in fact, wrong! It is then, an anti-war poem.
He adds the now infamous words “in all my dreams before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” The man in this mental picture is drowning in his own vomit as he hurls the inner contents of his lungs up through nose and mouth into the ground. He cannot control the convulsions and neither can Owen. To Jessie Pope and all the others, therefore, he sends this message: “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,” then “my friend, you would not tell with such high zest [eagerness] to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
That is the key message of this poem; if you could see and hear what we had to endure, to smell and taste the things we had to, then you, who did not go and do not know what it is like to serve and fight, would not be so bold with the lies, especially the lies told to children who want to hear tales of glory and bravery. Get real, in other words, is what he is saying. Be careful with your words, for young, innocent men are going off to war based solely on your words. Owen clearly believes that that is wrong, to persuade men to fight just for pure glory. There has to be a better reason than just that.
That last verse, is the most powerful in poetic history, for in just a few words, we get the full extent of the horror that befell the likes of my Grandfather and Wilfred Owen, who served on the same line, in different trenches. When you, he is saying, in your bed, at home, are having safe dreams, think of us, for ours are “smothering dreams” where we still “pace behind the wagon that we flung him in.” Our dreams still are as vivid as ever as we remember and “watch the white eyes, writhing in his face” as the dead body jumps each time a pothole is hit by the cart. We will see “his hanging face” dangling there for all time “like a devil’s sick of sin” [what a simile that is!] and we will hear at every jolt, the blood come gargling [up] from the froth-corrupted lungs” in our haunting memories and we will shiver with the memory of it and yet, you treat going to war as being something glorious?
War, Owen is saying, is as “obscene as cancer.” It is as “bitter as the cud.” It is “vile” and just like the “incurable sores on innocent tongues” because they never go away. As war poems go, this is the best ever, in this teacher’s humble opinion and just shows the true nature and futility of modern warfare to the maximum. This is why it is so good and still is studied by students the world over. In terms of the English language, there is nothing better!