On November 11, 1918, Germany and the Allied forces signed the Armistice of Compiègne, bringing an end to the fighting of World War I. Exactly one week earlier, Wilfred Owen was killed in action in France, having returned to active service there some 5 months prior, despite the admonitions of his close friend and poetic mentor, Siegfried Sassoon. It was Sassoon who, in 1920, arranged some of Owen’s works to be published posthumously, including perhaps his most famous, “Dulce et Decorum est”.
The title, along with the poem’s final line, are taken from a Latin phrase of Horace, well-known to centuries of war apologists, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It translates to, “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country”, a claim which Owen seeks in his appropriation to dispute. Immediately we are presented a scene that is neither sweet nor right:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”
This is one of the finest opening lines of poetry I have come across in my short life; not only in how it sets the mood, but how its words play together, and how they demand a startling image. First, we must imagine a beggar lying in the street, near a wall, curled like a child, his knees near his chin and his ankles at his ass, beneath a brown potato sack just large enough to cover his head or his feet, but never both. Now turn this beggar vertical, give him a helmet, a rifle, and some helpless friends, and you have the visual of tired — dare we say “homeless”? — man-boys marching through mud, knees clacking together in arbitrary rhythm; “coughing like hags”.
While this image entrenches, we re-examine the line, noting all the common sounds: the “b’s” in “Bent”, “douBLE”, and “BEggars”; the assonance in “douBLE” and “like OLD”, and again in “beGGARS” and “unDER”; the “n’s” in “beNt”, “UNder”, and “KNock-KNeed”; the various “c’s” and “s’s” filling the mere 20-syllable half-sentence further, while the “u” in “slUdge” rounds out the ones in “DOUble” and “UNder”.
So well-written are these two lines, that the next two, though strong, clearly lack the power of imagery and of sound; they are much too literal and appear almost as an after-thought:
“Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.”
They serve their narrative function, but not much more, and are perhaps appropriately quick and painless for that reason. “Haunting flares” is the only metaphor here, as we envision the soldiers marching towards camp, away from the notorious trenches, oblivious: “Men marched asleep”, the next line begins. Owen’s comrades are so prepared for real rest that they trample forward with missing boots, bearing instead solid blood for shoes, aware of almost nothing, “deaf even to the hoots of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.”
Then, a jolt, “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!”, followed by “an ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in time” — the men respond to a sudden mustard attack by equipping their gas masks in a panic. But one soldier is too late and begins “yelling out and stumbling, and floundering like a man in fire or lime.”
“Floundering” is a word that we associate with a human in water, or a fish out if it, struggling for air, and Owen continues the metaphor, observing the man “under a green sea”, “drowning” in gas; such a vision is it that he adds another strong line, telling of future nightmares:
“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
A line of pentameter often runs 11 syllables, but Owen here extends that allowance to 12, objectifying in metre the affected soldier’s prolonged death process. The nightmarish repetition of continuous verbs forces the sentence to stumble on, almost unwillingly: “guttering” evokes the image of a city storm drain gargling dirty water and flooded sewage, while “drowning” is rhymed with the same word two lines above — a reminder. The vision that Owen is forced to endure in “all [his] dreams” becomes then his warning to the world — “If in some smothering dreams you too…” — as he begins the final, and most crucial, argument.
The poisoned man is “flung” into a wagon to be taken off the battlefield as Owen trots behind, observing his “white eyes writhing in his… hanging face”, as if a devil had become so “sick of sin”, so revolted by his very nature, that he erupted with pure and entire disgust: “at every jolt, the blood [comes] gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”. Owen warns us not just of the sight, but of the sound. Amid the falling enemy shells behind, the jolts of the wagon in front, and the cursing of exhausted boots beside, it is the gargling of blood that he hears, and recounts. Amid, also, the colors of war, and through the “misty panes” of a gas mask, Owen witnesses in fullness the “white eyes”, the “drowning”.
The details of the poet’s warning are its power. While other soldiers are “deaf even to the hoots” of artillery, Owen is hearing and seeing all. Those who propagandize war, and encourage the enthusiasm of children in its exercise, are neither interested in details nor supported by their explication. Details make swallowing the myth of an honorable death more difficult; prompting instead the choking up, the gargling, and the drowning that we encounter here literally. There is no honor in what Owen observes; only something alien and absurd. To see humans participating in it, especially the young, the “innocent tongues”, is to see a contradiction — like “the old Lie” presented with “high zest”, or a devil growing “sick of sin”. If “you too” could see what Owen saw, “my friend”, you would not tell such lies to children.
The focus on the young, on the “children ardent for some desperate glory,” is at once, of course, an invocation of innocence in a world of death, but it is also not so trite as that. It serves primarily as criticism of the war-time British public — and, more directly, fellow poet, Jessie Pope — who promoted the conflict, glorifying the enlistment of Britain’s youth while emasculating those perceived as cowards.
Pope and others utilized iambic verse and ABAB rhyme schemes — just as we encounter here — in very ordered fashion, to advertise the inhumane as rhythmic, sane, even musical. Owen parodies and makes ironic these qualities, including the clearness of pentameter and the universality of his rhyme scheme. The conflict — sullied, disgusting, “obscene” — and its sanitized presentation are combined to elicit their inherent tensions, their contradictions: the strictness of metre and of syllable-count are not purely maintained; the smoothness of the rhymes is obscured by occasional enjambment; the scene and the imagery are gross and particular rather than aesthetic and ideal.
It is here that Owen resolves the purposed tension of the piece: “the old Lie” portrays death for one’s nation as beautiful; Owen, even in the undeniable allure of his words, reveals it to be anything but.