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Dulce et Decorum Est
A Poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
A Study Guide
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Wilfred Owen
Type of Work
Setting
Composition and Publication
The Title
Meter, Rhyme Scheme
Text With Notes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Another Owens Poem
Index Page
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Wilfred Owen: Talented Poet Killed in World War I

.......Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England, in 1893 and studied at the University of Reading. Because he could not afford to continue his education, he left school and worked as an English-language tutor in France while also writing poetry. After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the loss of so many young lives horrified him. Nevertheless, after returning home in 1915, he enlisted in the Artist's Rifles of the British army, received a commission, and shipped out to France in late December 1916. Over the next several months, he wrote poetry to record his impressions of the war. In the spring of 1917, he exhibited symptoms of shell shock after experiencing the hell of trench warfare. He also contracted trench fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by lice. His superiors returned him to Britain, where he underwent treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, then a suburb of Edinburgh and now part of the city. While there, he continued to write poems, one of which was “Dulce et Decorum Est.” An experienced poet who was also receiving treatment, Siegrfied Sassoon (1886-1967), helped him edit and polish his work. After his discharge from the hospital, Owen mingled with poets and wrote more poetry. His work by this time was showing great promise. Eventually, he returned to the army—and to war. He died in action in France just one week before the war ended (November 11, 1918). He was only twenty-five. However, his war poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem” lived on and today remain as meaningful and relevant as when he wrote them.
 

Type of Work

.......“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a lyric poem expressing in stark language the poet's reaction to the horror of war. Owen intended it to rebut the notion that combat is a noble and glorious pursuit.

Setting

.......The scenes described in the poem took place during World War I (1914-1918) on a battlefield in France. The Allied Powers of Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and other countries were fighting the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungry, and other countries.

Composition and Publication

.......Owen wrote "Dulce et Decorum Est" in 1917 while undergoing treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland. In 1918 he included it in a collection of poems he was preparing for publication. After returning to duty, he died on a French battlefield. His soldier friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), teamed with poet and prose writer Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) to edit the poems. The London firm of Chatto and Windus published the collection, The Poems of Wilfred Owen, in December 1920.

The Title and Final Sentence

.......The title is part of the Latin quotation at the end of the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Here is Owen's own translation of the quotation: It is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Others have translated the third word, decorum, as glorious, noble, or fitting instead of meet. The source of the quotation is the second ode in Book III of Carmina (Odes) by the ancient Roman writer Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace (65-8 BC). 

Meter

The meter pattern of the poem is iambic pentameter, which consists of five pairs of syllables. The first syllable of each pair is unstressed; the second, stressed. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the pattern.

.......1................2................3...............4..................5
Bent DOU..|..ble, LIKE..|..old BEG..|..gars UN..|..der SACKS,

...........1......................2..................3......................4......................5
Knock- KNEED,..|..cough ING..|..like HAGS,..|..we CURSED..|..through SLUDGE

Rhyme Scheme

.......The first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, the third with the sixth, and so on. 

Structure

.......The first stanza sets the scene, a battlefield with war-weary soldiers on the march. The second stanza centers on the central image of the poem: a gas attack in which one soldier, failing to put on his gas mask in time, dies in agony before the speaker of the poem. The remaining lines present the theme.

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Theme

.......The theme of the poem is straightforward and unambiguous: war is hell on earth, and there is nothing glorious about it. In presenting this theme, Owen was also presenting a warning, as he makes clear in the preface to his collection of poems.

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet, these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.
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Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,1 we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest3 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 hoots4
Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets7 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 panes8 and thick green light,9
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 you10 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,11 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.12



Notes

1....hags: Witches; shriveled old women
2....flares: Bursts of bright light produced high in the air by exploding rockets. Armies used flares at night to survey a battlefield. 
3....distant rest: Place of safety where soldiers could rest.
4....hoots: Sounds of artillery shells.
5....outstripped: Outpaced by the marching men.
6....Five-Nines: Artillery shells with a diameter 5.9 inches. Fired by a Howitzer, each shell contained gas that dispersed when the shell exploded.
7....ecstasy . . . fumbling: Frantic scrambling to put on gas masks for protection against toxic fumes dispersed by exploded grenades, artillery shells. or other devices.
8....panes: Framed eyepieces of a gas mask.
9....green light: Light of the flares as filtered through the green mist of chlorine gas.
10..you: In general, any person who romanticizes or glorifies war; in particular, Jessie Pope (1868-1941), a poetess who preached the glory of going to war for one's country.
11..cud of vile: Vomit
12..Dulce . . . mori: See The Title and Final Sentence.

 

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. 
some smothering
knock-kneed
watching white eyes
from the froth

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Hyperbole
Men marched asleep
Metaphor and Simile
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
Simile: Comparison of the mist of green gas to a sea
Metaphor: Comparison of the gas victim to a victim of drowning
Onomatopoeia
hoot
gargling
Simile
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
Comparison of a soldier's coughing to the coughing of a witch

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin
Comparison of a soldier's face to a devil's face

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Write a short essay arguing that "Dulce et Decorum" is as meaningful today as it was when Owen wrote it in 1917.
2. Ask a person who fought in a war whether the poem expresses what he or she felt on the battlefield. Report your answer to your class.
3..Write an essay arguing that many Hollywood films romanticize and glorify soldiering.
4. Write an essay about the use of chemical warfare in the First World War.
5. Which of the following word (or words) best describes the tone of the poem: somber, sad, impassive, angry, bitter. Explain your answer.
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