Dulce et Decorum Est: The Lies of War
Dulce et Decorum Est is a poem about war, how war is perceived by the people, and what it is to live and die in a war. The poem was written by Wilfred Owen, who was a soldier in World War I and has first-hand experience with the atrocities of war. Dulce et Decorum Est can be divided into two parts. One is where the poet narrates life during the war and the second is addressed to the readers, explaining the reality of war.
Dulce et decorum est is a Latin term which means “It’s sweet and appropriate or fitting”. This in itself makes little sense, but one can understand the true meaning and the connection of the term with war by reading the complete Latin phrase.
Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori which means it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. The phrase is taken from Horace’s III.II about valor and it was written to inspire young men to become soldiers and fight and die for the country. Owens calls it the old lie.
Let’s take a look at the poem and then we’ll analyze the painting part by part. The poem is written in simple language and in a narrative style.
Dulce et Decorum Est: The poem
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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,
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.
Analyzing dulce et decorum est
The poem can be divided into four parts on the basis of what the poet is narrating. The first part consists of eight lines and it describes the life of a “pawn” during the war. How the day to day life of common infantry.
The second stanza which is of six lines describes one of the many atrocities these soldiers had to endure. What inhumane conditions they had to go through and the immense suffering they were bestowed upon by their superiors.
The third stanza is a couplet and modicum of what the poet has gone through during the war and how greatly it has affected his life, his sleep.
The final stanza consists of twelve lines and it is a message from the poet, a request by him, asking people to stand in his shoes and try to live their lives normally or sleep peacefully. Finally, he says how wrong it is to believe that line said by Horace. How wrong it is to suffer that much for glory.
First part: Life of the pawns
The first stanza describes a day in the life of these infantrymen and the struggles they go through. The scene starts with men struggling to walk in a harsh environment, all bent as if someone put a sack on their back. They cough like old, diseased women.
The men had lost their boots, many did not even sleep and this lack of sleep was showing in the way they walked. Their eyes bloodshot, no was in their senses. They could not see, could not walk. How were they supposed to fight an army? Amidst all this struggle, there was no rest for them. Just hardship and pain.
What these lines show is a contrasting picture of what’s expected and what actually happens. The people who sing songs of valor and pride in serving his country have never seen this picture. It is far from that because, in a war, the most difficult times are when there is no war. When these hungry, tired and injured men just survive, waiting to fight, waiting to die. Where’s the pride in this?
Second part: The enemy
The second stanza brings the action, the fight that one is supposed to be in when in war. And is it a courageous battle where one has to show their strength and resolve? Is it a fight against a mortal enemy? No. It is actually the opposite.
What these tired and maimed men have to fight is an attack of cowardice. An attack of toxic gas on these damaged men just worsens the conditions. As they realize that they are now surrounded by death, they rush to get their gas masks. But not all are successful.
One of the narrator’s comrades drowns in this sea of green smoke. And what the poet saw was beyond any suffering he has ever seen. This was something that changed his life, forever. But before we get into that, let’s look into what contrast this shows.
The life of a soldier as Horace and other poets portrayed was shattered in the first stanza. There is just suffering and filth and disease when one is in war. But then one expects the battle with the enemy to be a place to prove your valor. But even that image is shattered.
The fight is inhumane to say the very least. There is no combat, there is no opportunity to show bravery. However brave a man be, he cannot fight smoke. The man always suffers. Is this the battle people seek when they think of joining the army? Is this the definition of glory? A death that one would not wish even for the vilest and disgusting criminal. A death that these innocent men have to accept.
Part three: The afflictions
The third part is a couplet which is all about the afflictions the poet has received from watching that scene, watching his comrade suffer and choke and die in the most painful way possible. The peace of sleep has been taken from him.
The dreams turn into nightmares when he sees the man coming at him, dying while he looks into the eyes of the poet. This makes the poet think, “what if I was in his place? What if I had to suffer all that?”. This is the cause of the shell-shock, something he can never fight. This brings to another important point made by those two lines; The war never ended.
The events in the war have left an imprint on his mind which will haunt him forever. This is what the soldiers have to pay to be in the war; To have the war be in them. Never to live a normal life, even when the war is over and the differences are set aside.
Part four: The old lie
The last stanza of the poem is the bulkiest of all, consisting of 12 lines. From the life of the soldiers in the war to that horrific scene which resulted in the death of his comrade and the effects of that scene, now we come to the present state where the poet addresses the readers, the common folks who have not experienced the war.
He tells the readers that if they had seen the white eyes of the soldier and the obscene sores on innocent tongues, the suffering that the man went through, no one would want to join the war with gleaming eyes seeking glory. Because there is no glory in dying like this, fighting an invisible enemy or surviving the war and suffering each day of your life.
The last part of the poem is about the old lie told mostly by people who are weak or afraid to join the army. They tell this lie to the children who are already seeking the glory of war. The old lie that is “nothing is sweeter than dying for one’s country”. But there is nothing sweet about writhing away, choking on poisonous gas, gasping for air, grasping for support as the legs fail while blisters tell the suffering of the skin.
The mind turns delirious and there is no peaceful death granted, just dead withing minutes, fighting no one, for no one. Where is the glory in this? Where are the songs about that innocent man, songs about his valor, and his courage? All we get is a frightening and harrowing narrative about the suffering he went through.
The war and its toll
The message of Dulce et Decorum est is how war is perceived and what war really is. Winning a war was celebrated but what about the people who fight in the war? Win or lose, it never gave them any peace. The harrowing memory which they were given will remain there to haunt their lives. There are two results of the war for the people who fight it. The ones who live have to endure the horrifying memory while the ones who die become this horrifying memory. Peace for the nations, not for the ones who helped to achieve it. And there is nothing sweet about it.