Monday, April 26, 2010

Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen

After yesterday's poem by Rupert Brooke, "The Soldier", I thought I'd move on to Wilfred Owen's famous war poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est". The title of the poem comes from one of Horace's Odes, written in Lattin (of course): Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which is quoted in full at the end of the poem. The translation for the Latin is, roughly, "It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country." One of the most famous of the War Poems from WWI and one, is a condemnation of war and its atrocities.

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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.

Form: The poem is written in iambic pentameter (five iambs or iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), except for the final line, which is in iambic trimeter (three iambs). It uses alternating rhyme throughout. Consisting of 28 lines, it is arranged into four stanzas of varying length, with the arrangement of the rhyme as follows: ABABCDCD EFEFGH GH IJIJKLKLMNMN.

Discussion: This is perhaps the most famous war poem written, and in a 1995 poll conducted by the BBC, this poem came in as number eight. It's the sort of poem that really brings home the horror and desperation of war, the sort of poem that should give thinking men pause before committing troops to a conflict. Too few of the world's decision-makers read poetry, I think, but perhaps I digress.

The poem describes a gas attack during the First World War, as men were already headed away from the battlefield toward the rest area out of reach of the mortars and shell. "Five-Nines" are 5.9 calibre shells, and I've seen this poem written with the phrase "disappointed shells" instead of "tired, outstripped Five Nines" as well. The speaker and most of the men around him manages to get his gas mask (helmet) on in time to avoid harm from the gas, but one man does not, and his agonizing death is described in ghastly, graphic terms, as well as how his body was "flung" into a cart as they continued to make their way through the mud of the battlefield. Owen makes clear that the memory of this gas victim continues to haunt his dreams.

Owen wrote the poem in 1917, while at a military hospital being treated for shell-shock. The earliest draft of the poem was dedicated to Jessie Pope, a poet who had written a lot of gung-ho pro-war poetry including a poem entitled "Who's for the Game?", which concludes "Come along, lads— but you’ll come on all right—/For there’s only one course to pursue,/Your country is up to her neck in a fight,/And she’s looking and calling for you." In fact, some evidence exists to suggest that Owen originally intended to send the poem to Pope. Later drafts removed Pope's name and were dedicated to "a certain Poetess", although the poem was ultimately published after the war with no dedication at all.

The phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is part of a slightly longer, well-known Latin quote from Horace, which was widely used at the time as a toast. The full quote concluded that while it might be sweet and fitting to die for one's country, it was sweeter still to live, and sweetest of all to drink to that country. The opening snippet, used as the conclusion of the poem, was frequently repeated during the Boer war, and was etched in stone at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. It is also found carved in Arlington National Cemetery at the entry to the Memorial Amphitheatre.

Owen was killed in combat just a week before the end of WWI. News of his death reached his home town in England as the bells rang out to celebrate the armistice.

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