A Literary Analysis of Dulce et Decorum Est

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embellishment

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Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

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
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.


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A Literary Analysis of DULCE et DECORUM EST

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embellishment

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The stunning impact of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is largely due to Owen’s literary skill and understanding of poetic form and technique. His subtle alterations of an existing poetic form resulted in one of the most dramatic war poems of the early twentieth century.

Wilfred Owen was an educated man. He had an intimate understanding of the traditional, poetic conventions of his day. In his poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen’s superb command of both language and technique resulted in a work rich in imagery, cadence and dramatic action.

This powerful, haunting poem has a deep and profound impact on readers of all ages and generations.

Not only did Owen’s technical creativity result in a forceful work of art; it represented the changing values and societal conventions brought about by the atrocities and historical impact of the ‘Great War’ on a society still largely immersed in the romanticism of the Victorian Era.

As a result of Owen’s subtle changes to rhythm, punctuation and stress, the poem becomes somberly conversational in tone.

Owen does not place the classic, iambic stresses within each line; most lines do not follow the traditional iambic rhythm.

Because ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ deviates from standard, iambic pentameter meter, the term, ‘loose’ iambic pentameter’ is a more accurate description. (True iambic pentameter has 10 syllables and 5 stresses per line with the stress falling on the second syllable of each foot. Owen’s poem adheres to 9, 10, or 11 syllables per line, although some lines have less.)

This technique gives the poem a dramatic, hard-hitting quality that would be difficult to create using the standard, softer, iambic form. By subtly changing the iambic stresses within the poem, the poem becomes a somber dirge.

Owen also breaks the traditional iambic rhythm primarily through his use of punctuation. Commas, dashes, hyphens, exclamation points and periods effectively distort the flow of words and sentences.

For example, the combination of ‘case’ and ‘punctuation’ in the exclamation Gas! GAS! Quick boys! (line 9) heightens the sense of urgency and excitement.

Figurative language and literary devices used by poets set the tone of poems. Owen skillfully uses literary devices such as metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, imagery and allusion to create the somber, conversational tone of the poem. (See Examples at bottom of page.)

In stanza three, by isolating the two lines: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning,” dramatically enhances the horror and revulsion the narrator is experiencing as he relived the soldier’s death over and over in his dreams. ²

An ‘Autotelic’ poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ speaks its own truth. It does not take its value from some external truth.

The truth it speaks is that war is brutal and death, painful and inglorious. (In a sense, the poem is almost an elegy. Although it does not have the exact form of a true elegy, it does set forth its own truths.)

The effect of the poem is to elicit a response from the reader as he or she learns what the author has to say about the facts of his experience.

The first part of the poem takes place on the fringe of a combat zone. The flares were behind them; the shells from the outstripped Five-Nines were beyond their range, dropping behind the soldiers.

The soldiers were probably in a defensive position. This would explain why they could turn their backs on the action. They had probably been fighting all day, and probably for longer than that, which would explain their extreme weariness, injuries (blood shod) and loss of equipment (boots, gas mask) making the time of day very near its close.

The time of year was probably early spring or late autumn, suggested by the sludge, which is caused by heavy and persistent rainfall.

The period of history is WWI. The gas, (thick, green) and the effect it had on the soldier (choking, suffocation) indicates that the action in this battle probably took place sometime between May 1915 and July 1917.³

The second part of the poem (third and fourth stanza) takes place away from the battlefield in the narrator’s dreams and in his thoughts as he directs them toward his “friend.”

‘Figurative Imagery’ used throughout the poem dramatically emphasizes the scene being recreated by the narrator. There are several image groups that effectively work together throughout the poem and hold the poem together.

In the first stanza, the pervading image is one of weariness and fatigue; the uncoordinated men stumble, fall and fumble. They are lame, knock-kneed, helpless and drunk.

The second stanza presents the image of panic, confusion and terror.

“An ecstasy of fumbling” suggests a state of elated bliss experienced by passionate lovers. Owen uses this paradoxical phrase to describe, instead, the helpless, frightened soldier in a state of extreme panic and terror!

There is also the image of unreality and hell. The men are asleep, drunk, not in full possession of their senses. The light is thick and green–as under the sea. A man flound’ring in fire or lime presents a horrific image of a soul lost in the depths of hell!

The use of ‘Deep Images’ by the narrator invokes a powerful response in the reader. Deep images are images that come from the writer’s subconscious. The gruesome image of cancer, cud and incurable sores represent all that is vile and repulsive to even the most hardened reader.

The third stanza presents the image of horror, helplessness and intense suffering. There is also the image of death by drowning.

The fourth stanza develops the image of suffering and death. The image of dishonesty and betrayal incorporated in the ‘Lie’ constitutes a moral outrage against all that is decent and humane under the guise of providing cheap glory for those who believe.

Perhaps the most subtle yet pervasive image is that of corruption. War corrupts the social, physical, moral and spiritual order of human society.

All of the image groups work together powerfully and effectively giving the reader a graphic picture of the horrors of war. Owen uses these images to show the ultimate irony and the moral of the poem; it is not, in fact, sweet and meet to die for one’s country. It is, rather, quite horrific!

The narrator is an educated and compassionate man. Not only does he quote Latin, he uses the quote to make an ironic comment about something to which he is adamantly opposed. The following ‘allusions’ suggest that the narrator was in command of this regiment:

By use of the term “we” the narrator identifies himself as being one of the soldiers.

The line “Gas! GAS! Quick Boys! suggests that the narrator was responsible for giving directions.

The phrase “Before my helpless sight” suggests that the narrator felt responsible for what was happening but was unable to do anything to help the injured soldier.

The phrase “He plunges at me” further suggests that the dying soldier had reason to look to the narrator for help. Further, once the soldier’s gruesome, inevitable fate became apparent, the phrase “the wagon that we threw him in” suggests that the narrator was responsible for and directly involved in disposing the body.

The attitude of the narrator to his audience is one of simplicity and truth. He does not glamorize war; neither does he try to elicit pity. He is straightforward in his description of what has happened and how it has affected him.

In the last stanza the narrator turns from graphic imagery to a direct, personal address to his ‘friend’. In describing the anguish and suffering of the dying soldier he shows outright contempt for his friend who has obviously never experienced first hand the horrors of war, yet who has the naivité and audacity to glorify war to children who really do not know, or who do not have the means to know any better.

Owen dedicated the first draft of this poem (dated October 8, 1917 and addressed to his mother, Susan Owen) to Jessie Pope.

Jessie Pope was a civilian propagandist of World War I who encouraged–“with such high zest”–young men to join the battle through her poetry, e.g., “Who’s for the Game?” A later revision amended the dedication to “a certain Poetess.” Owen later addressed the poem to the larger audience of war supporters in general. However, in the last stanza his sardonic address to ‘my friend’ delineates Owen’s original intent and audience.

The narrator’s horrific imagery of the brutal death by gas poisoning paints the macabre reality of war–a reality that is in stark and shocking contrast to the pervasive sentiment of the day–that war is glorious, noble and honorable.

In the last stanza the narrator directs a scathing invective against the romantic idealism of those who exalt war–specifically to his intended target for the poem, Jessie Pope: “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 and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 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.4

Central to the meaning of the poem is the fact that war is horrible and inhumane. Both are an affront to human dignity. The meaning of the poem is the exact opposite to what the title suggests–it is not sweet and meet to die for one’s country, rather it is horrific, gruesome, painful and ugly!

Herein lies the inherent tragedy of war and the incomparable message of this poem – the unbearable suffering inflicted on innocent people compelled either by law, high ideals, or outright lies to give their lives in defense of their homeland.

Regarding the ‘War Poets’ as they were later called, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Fifth Edition, 1891) tells us that “the poets involved on the front, however romantically they may have felt about the war when they first joined up, soon realized its full horror, and this realization affected both their imaginations and their poetic techniques.”

Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 and died in action in 1918, five days before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. He was a man of great sensitivity; an intellectual, plunged against his will into the holocaust of a gruesome, horrific war. His poetry was a reactionary response to a war which horrified and disgusted him.

In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

END NOTES

1. The Hague Convention of 1908 forbade the use of poison gas in war. Therefore, the attack of gas was all the more cruel and immoral because of its illegality. The gas attack is symbolic of all that is immoral, and consequently, indecent.

H.C. Englebright and F.C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1934), p. 253

2. It is an historical fact that the first clouds of poison gas (chlorine) were sent across to the enemy’s lines by the Germans during World War One on the afternoon of April 22, 1915, and were carried by favorable winds to the Allied lines at Ypres, France.

Chlorine is a lethal, choking agent which damages the pulmonary tract and lung capillaries causing frothing at the mouth, disorientation, convulsions and cardiac arrest. These are the symptoms described by the narrator of the dying soldier. The British were unprepared for chemical warfare in 1915. By December 1916, Sir Douglas Haig reported that the means of protection against gas devised by the British had proved to be most effective. On July 12, 1917, the Germans introduced mustard gas, which was colorless and odorless. (Effects of contact with the gas did not become apparent until later.) Choking gases are unlikely to be used in modern warfare due to the fact that gas masks can be donned before a lethal exposure occurs. (It is for these reasons that I have dated the historical setting of this poem sometime between May 1915 and July 1917.)

Elvira K. Fradkin, The Air Menace and the Answer (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1934) pp.7-14

3. Horace, Odes, 3.2.13.
Horace was a Roman Imperial Poet. The first 3 words of this poem, and the Latin exhortation of the final two lines are drawn from the poem: (Odes, Ode III.2.13)

(Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Venusia, December 8, 65 BC – Rome, November 27, 8 BC)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”

These words were well known and often quoted by supporters of the war near its inception and were, therefore, of particular relevance to soldiers of the era.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Horace (Odes, Ode III.2.13):[3]

Englebrecht, H.C. and Hanigen, F.C. Merchants of Death. New Your: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1934

Fradkin, Elvira K. The Air Menace and the Answer. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1934

Holman, Hugh C. A Handbook to Literature. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Educational Publishing, 1981

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Mass.: G.C. Merriam Co. Publishers, 1971

NOTE

The original analysis of this poem was written in ‘strict critical analysis’ style. This presentation has been adapted for presentation on the Internet, and as such, is written in what I will call ‘loose literary analysis form.” The end notes and bibliography have been slightly modified and are not in the strict, conventional form for citations and references used for academic papers.

The original analysis was written without benefit of knowing the author, period of history or historical context. Events, location and time frame had to be deduced from the information provided by the narrator within the context of the poem. (It is worth noting that Wilfred Owen, himself, was the narrator of the poem.)

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Examples: Some of the literary devices used by Owen in this poem include, but are not limited to:

Anastrophe, Spondee, Elision, Anacoluthon, Metaphor, Simile, Personification, Archetype, Pathos, Alliteration, Imagery and Allusion to create the somber, conversational tone of the poem.

‘Anastrophe’ is the inversion the logical sequence of events. Owen’s use of this technique effectively secures rhyme and gives added emphasis to the fatigue and weariness of the soldiers. If the sentence read: We cursed through the sludge, bent double like old beggars and coughing like hags till we turned our backs on the haunting flares and began to trudge toward our distant rest–the emphasis would have been on the difficult march to the distant rest. Rather, by inverting the opening, descriptive phrase, Owen dramatically reinforces, instead, the pathetic physical condition of the exhausted soldiers.

By opening the poem with a ‘Spondee’, Owen paints a vivid image of bone-weary soldiers marching out of cadence. The plight of the bent double, knock-kneed, coughing soldiers as they curse (not march) through sludge is thereby dramatically emphasized.

By the use of ‘Elision’ the author secures the desired rhyme. The use of the aptly descriptive term (flound’ring) conforms to the metrical foot by reducing the word by one syllable. This technique has the added effect of giving a sense of immediacy to the actions of the men.

‘Anacoluthon’ is deliberately used throughout the entire second stanza for emotional effect. The incomplete sentences create the image of haste and panic – a feeling of breathlessness both literally (the gas is choking) and figuratively (human beings experience shortness of breath in times of panic and haste.)

‘Metaphor’ describes the physical condition of the soldiers. They are men marching asleep, lame, blind, deaf and drunk.

‘Similie’ and ‘Allusion’ are emphatic devices used to portray the desperate condition of the weary soldiers. They are beggars and hags. Their lowly and pitiful state is despicable, not admirable. The implication is that soldiers are not the great noble warriors alluded to in the title of the poem; rather, they are comparable to the lowest elements of society and thereby deserving of pity and scorn.

‘Personification’ further enhances the image of weariness. Even the guns are weary. Outstripped, tired Five-Nines, obscene cancer, desperate glory and smothering dreams emphasize the true condition of the battle weary soldiers.

The use of ‘Archetype’ and ‘Irony’ further enhances the image of suffering. The picture of a devil, according to the archetype in classical or biblical literature portrays a creature who thrives on sin, indecency and immorality. The simile: “A devil sick of sin” presents a truly unimaginable reality. The soldier’s suffering is so horrific that even the being that thrives all that is evil is himself, repulsed.

‘Pathos’ arouses our pity, sorrow and indignation. The soldier is helpless and suffering. So too, is the narrator. And so too will be the children if they believe the Lie.

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More Sample Writings by Val

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Literary Analysis, Dulce et Decorum Est

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