.. . Wilfred
Owen: Talented Poet Killed in World War I
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 armyand 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.
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
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.
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,
Poems of Wilfred Owen, in December 1920.
Title and Final Sentence
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).
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.
first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, the third
with the sixth, and so on.
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 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,
Above all I am not concerned
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.
Dulce et Decorum
Est By Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars
Knock-kneed, coughing like
we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares2
we turned our backs
And towards our distant
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
that dropped behind.
In all my dreams, before
my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,
If in some smothering dreams
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
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
The old Lie: Dulce
et decorum est Pro patria
Witches; shriveled old women
Bursts of bright light produced high in the air by exploding rockets. Armies
used flares at night to survey a battlefield.
rest: Place of safety where soldiers could rest.
Sounds of artillery shells.
Outpaced by the marching men.
Artillery shells with a diameter 5.9 inches. Fired by a Howitzer, each
shell contained gas that dispersed when the shell exploded.
. . . fumbling: Frantic scrambling to put on gas masks for protection
against toxic fumes dispersed by exploded grenades, artillery shells. or
Framed eyepieces of a gas mask.
light: Light of the flares as filtered through the green mist of chlorine
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.
of vile: Vomit
. . . mori: See The Title and Final Sentence.
. . Figures
are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
asleep. Many had lost their boots
Obscene as cancer,
bitter as the cud
Men marched asleep
Metaphor and Simile
Dim, through the
misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I
saw him drowning.
Comparison of the mist of green gas to a sea Metaphor:
Comparison of the gas victim to a victim of drowning
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
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.
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.
an essay arguing that many Hollywood films romanticize and glorify soldiering.
Write an essay about the use of chemical warfare in the First World War.
Which of the following word (or words) best describes the tone of the poem:
somber, sad, impassive, angry, bitter. Explain your answer.