When reading anything I love to be shocked or horrified, if your poetry can give me palpitations then you know you’ve written a cracker! This is why my favourite poem of all time is an old classic, Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum est.
The earliest draft found of this poem was dated back in 1917 written while he was stationed at Craiglockhart in a letter to his mother. This was a whole three years before the poem was even published.
The poem centres round the Latin phrase (originally written by the Roman poet Horace) 'Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori', roughly translating to: it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country. Throughout the poem Owen disputes this idea by presenting the horrible truth about war life.
The poem begins with a description of the men. The second line of the poem says, “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” The reason I like this line so much was simply because of the word “cursed.” Normally you’d expect a verb here, for example: ‘we walked through sludge’ or ‘we crawled through sludge.’ However Owen uses an adjective instead to show the soldiers frustration about having to push through this sludge when they’re clearly not in the best physical condition. They are described as “knock-kneed” which is severe muscle and bone pain, which makes it incredibly difficult to move.
Owen goes onto describe the physical ramifications of being a soldier, “And towards our distant rest began to trudge/Men marched asleep” and “Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots.” “Hoots” is the noise made from the shells rushing through the air. I find it horrifying how tired soldiers must have been. Owen has mentioned going to their “distant rest” which is said to have been a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer. To be that tired you’d need possibly more than a few days rest is astounding to me. It really puts a picture in my head of the conditions these men were in.
The next part of the poem is the section Owen sent to his mother in 1917. Owen sent her the first draft of this piece, he states in his letter to her, “Here is a gas poem done yesterday (which is not private, but not final).
This description of being gassed by the Germans is very long and detailed. Owen does make you feel like you were present during these descriptions as he speaks directly to us: “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” You almost feel like you have to put your gas mask on.
I’m going to quote the whole description below so you can see what I mean.
“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 writing 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”
I mean, where do you even begin? Are you as horrified as I was to read in such detail what the gas used to do to men who couldn’t get their masks on in time? When you panic, you are more likely to be clumsy, which immediately ups the chances of you being caught in the gas.
By the description Owen gives, it is most likely it was chlorine gas, as that does make the lungs fill with blood so you feel like you are drowning.
Through this description I felt like I was Owen, inside my helmet, watching through this thick green haze a man drowning on his own blood, begging me for help and knowing there was nothing I could do to help. Imagine having to watch a man choking on his own blood in front of you. It’s just unimaginable. No scratch that, it’s very imaginable, Owen makes it so. That’s what’s so disturbing.
What really sent chills through me was Owen saying they had to throw the body into a wagon and then watching while his lungs are still filling and he is still choking. I just couldn’t imagine discarding a human life in such a cruel way. The fact soldiers were ordered to do this and it practically became a routine for them is just inhumane.
Despite the circumstances of being in war, I felt he still deserved a burial, instead of being discarded like a spare part, or something just getting in their way. Could you imagine having to do that frequently? Put your compassion for others aside because men are dying all around you. I think even the most bitter of people would struggle to do this.
The speaker of the poem tries to reinforce the idea that if people were to witness what war was really like they wouldn't be so quick to believe the Latin saying, this is proved by the final few lines of the poem: “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” Simply translated: My friend, you would not speak with such enthusiasm, to children desperate for glory that it is sweet and honourable to fight and die for your country. Owen makes his views explicit as he refers to the Latin saying as "The Old Lie."
Due to my extreme interest in history, Owens poem has been a constant favourite of mine and the inspiration for many of my poems, including Adam Ward's editors pick for Under the Fable’s August issue. It can be found on their website, pages 6 - 9, in which I try to replicate Owens shocking imagery when talking about the Merseyside blitz during World War II.
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