Dulce et Decorum est

From Modernism Lab Essays

Jump to: navigation, search

By Andrew Williamson

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917) is one of the most famous poems to emerge from the ranks of the “soldier-poets” who fought in the First World War. In a nightmarish dream-vision of trench-warfare, the poem’s speaker witnesses the “drowning” of a fellow soldier in a sea of mustard gas. At the climactic moment of their encounter, the hallucinatory realism of the poem’s first four stanzas gives way to an accusatory, second-person address in t
he fifth. The poem concludes by denouncing the naïve proponents of “the old Lie” that defined the propagandistic war poetry of the period: that to die for one’s country was not only noble, but beautiful too.

“Dulce et decorum est” was composed during a period of convalescence from mental disorder. In 1917, Owen was diagnosed with “shell shock”—what would today be known as post-traumatic stress disorder—and was granted a reprieve from the war. He spent the majority of his time at the English psychiatric hospital Craiglockhart, and it was there that Owen encountered fellow soldier-poet and eventual literary mentor Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon encouraged Owen to channel his indignation over the war into poetry and, in this regard, can be seen as a literary forefather to “Dulce et decorum est” and Owen’s other war poems, among them "Strange Meeting," "Insensibility" and "S.I.W."

Owen’s stint at Craiglockhart marked a formative step in his poetic development. On December 31, 1917, he boasted to his mother that, “I go out of this year a Poet,…as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.”[1] Owen would not live to see another New Year’s Eve; he died in combat on November 4, 1918, at the age of 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. During his lifetime, Owen witnessed the publication of only four of his own poems, and it was not until 1920 that Sassoon would collect and publish a posthumous volume of his works.

Title and Dedication

With the title “Dulce et decorum est [pro patria mori]” (Latin: “Sweet and proper it is [to die for one’s country]”), Owen situates his poem in
a context at once classical and contemporary. The original source of the title is Horace’s ode 3.2, a paean to the glory of dying in battle for the good of the nation, although the title also suggests a connection with a more immediate source: the school (if one may call it that) of war poets whose work presented a saccharine and therefore palatable rendering of trench warfare to a blissfully ignorant English readership. Their work, which blurs the line between poetry and propaganda, was collected in two volumes by the editor Galloway Kyle, a pseudonym for the publisher Macdonald Erskine. Each of these volumes—Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men (1916) and More Songs of the Fighting Men (1917)—contains a poem with the title “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (one by Sydney Oswald, a major in the King’s Rifle Corps, and the other by Harold Jarvis, a corporal in The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry). With one eye on the past and another on the present, this two-pronged address evokes the unsettling pertinence of a two-millenia-old invitation to battle.[2]

It is no coincidence that each of these volumes should include a poem with the Horatian dictum for a title: formal education in Latin literature was a rite of passage for upper-class public school students of the era, and the line would have been a commonplace among educated English readers and writers. Sydney Oswald’s poem, appearing in the first of Kyle's two volumes, epitomizes the highly regular metrical and rhyming verse structures of WWI soldier poetry:

They gave their lives for England; did not pause
    To count the glorious cost, when England bade
Her sons to strive in Freedom’s holy cause,
    But armed to fight. Full soon they died, yet made
A name of lasting glory; gained applause
    From all the brave; a fame which cannot fade.[3]

With its formal rigidity, the poem performs the role of a mortician: it embalms the body of the dead English soldier in structured verse and, by doing so, preserves the image of him as a dignified and unsuffering creature. Whereas Oswald and Jarvis swallow whole and regurgitate the commonplace Horatian logic, however, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” ironizes the Latin tag by showing war for what it really is. Not sweet, but bitter; not proper, but savage. By lopping off the second half of Horace’s line in his title, the speaker of Owen’s poem establishes the tone of resistance that Oswald and Jarvis’s poems lack.

Although these two war-poets are convenient foils against which to imagine Wilfred Owen, the poet had someone else in mind at the time of composition: Jessie Pope, a writer and illustrator of children’s books which depicted battle in similarly glowing terms. Pope’s verse, like that of the soldier-poets in Kyle’s editions, is simplistic in both rhyme and meter, and this simplicity lends it the nursery-rhyme quality tailored to the sensibilities of her young audience. One of Pope’s poems imagines the qualities of an ideal male suitor, and demands that:

Who buys her an engagement ring,
    And finds her kind and kissing,
Must have one member in a sling
    Or, preferably, missing.[4]

In the first draft of “Dulce et Decorum est,” Owen dedicated his poem “To Jessie Pope etc” (see image). A later version obscures the exact identity of the addressee by calling Pope merely “a certain Poetess,” but by the time Sassoon published the final version, the dedication had been scrapped entirely. The identity of the original addressee gives particular resonance to the speaker’s acerbic indictment, in the fifth stanza, of the one who “tell[s] with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” From among the hordes of pro-war poets that propagandized in favor of self-sacrifice, Owen singled out Pope. Why? As the poem suggests, her verse targets the innocent—children—who lack the individual awareness to reject the classic call to arms.

Formal Structure

One source of ironic tension in “Dulce et Decorum est” is the disjuncture between the poem’s subject and its title; another is the disjuncture between its subject and its formal structure. Like the “songs of the fighting men” in Kyle’s editions, “Dulce et Decorum est” demonstrates an affinity for regular meter and rhyme, but unlike that other soldier-poetry, this verse form seems to stand at odds with the pandemonium that Owen’s words describe:

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. (1-8)

The stanza consists of two quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter, although with several spondaic substitutions (“knock-kneed”; “blood-shod”; “Five-Nines”) whose strong stresses echo the percussive soundscape of the battlefield. Owen is commonly associated with the technique known as “pararhyme” (a breed of slant rhyme that relies on similar consonant rather than vowel sounds), but the rhymes in this poem are decidedly traditional. In this regard, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” bears all the formal trappings of Oswald’s poem and Pope’s nursery rhyme, but Owen subverts rather than supports their moral approbation of self-sacrifice. The critic Paul Fussell observes that “…a large part of the ironic effect of First World War poems, those dwelling on meaningless slaughters, fatuous errors, and appalling mess and hopelessness results from their being conducted with so high a regard for order.”[5] This discrepancy between sound and sense—Owen’s rejection of what William Wimsatt and John Hollander call “verbal mimesis”—helps to establish the mocking tone of this poem, and makes the loss that it describes still more poignantly bitter.

Owen, the Georgian Poets and Literary Modernism

Issued from humble beginnings as the son of a train station manager, Owen tried and failed to win a scholarship to study at University College, Reading.[6] He was not a gentleman but longed to become one. When the war broke out, Owen was teaching English in southwest France, and took advantage of a program that allowed anyone returning to England from abroad to become an officer, a position that someone of Owen’s social status could not otherwise have attained. The war that catalyzed Owen’s poetic imagination and that facilitated his entry, via Sassoon, into London’s cloistered circles of literary aesthetes was also, ironically, the war that killed him.

When he died in 1918, Owen stood at the threshold of both his own poetic maturation and the full-fledged emergence of literary modernism in the early 1920’s. The close association of Owen’s name with "pararhyme" is deceptive, suggesting that he had developed a unique and sustained poetics by the time of his death; in fact he had not. He composed only a handful of poems with pararhymed verse, and those clustered near the very end of his career. In the poetry drafted before his encounter with Sassoon in 1917, Owen remains overshadowed by the literary identities of his declared Romantic archetypes: John Keats and Percy Shelley. If Owen can be associated with any poetic movement at all, it is with the Georgians, a group of traditionally-informed pre-Moderns whose ranks included Sassoon, Robert Graves and D.H. Lawrence.

The tension between theme and form in “Dulce et Decorum est” highlights Owen’s uneasy relationship with modern poetry. “[I]t is notable,” Paul Fussell writes, “that while others like Eliot, Pound and Joyce were writing ‘experimentally,’ the poets of the First World War tended to write in a traditional style….What one encounters [in Owen’s poem] is so compelling and ‘modern’ (in the nasty way) that it’s easy to overlook the poem’s non-modern form.”[7] “Dulce et Decorum est” complicates the mandate of Pound’s nascent modernist poetics that, in order to “make it new,” modern poetry must reject “sentimental” verse forms as unfit for expressing the horror of modern trench warfare. Although the bulk of what we now call modern poetry had yet to be written in Owen’s lifetime, “Dulce et Decorum est” nonetheless engages in conversation with this burgeoning poetics of formal disjuncture.

  1. Wilfred Owen, Selected Letters ed. Bell. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1985) p. 306.
  2. C.f. Paul Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier-Poets,” as published in The Review of English Studies 40:160 (November, 1989), p. 520. “In Owen’s war poetry, reference or allusion has almost always an ironizing function. The primary thrust of this irony is in one of two directions—towards the situation of war itself, or towards the source of the allusion.”
  3. Sydney Oswald, as published in Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men ed. Galloway Kyle (Erskine Macdonald: London, 1916) p. 69.
  4. Jessie Pope, “The Beau Ideal” as excerpted in Wilfred Owen’s Voices by Douglas Kerr (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1993) p. 322.
  5. Paul Fussell, Introduction to The Norton Book of Modern War ed. Fussell (Norton: New York, 1991), p. 35.
  6. Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen (Ivan R. Dee: Chicago, 2003), p.105.
  7. Fussell, 35.
Personal tools