Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
I confess I have always shied away from the poetry of Wilfred Owen, even though many readers and scholars consider him to be the greatest poet of World War I, a consensus I believe is probably correct. But his poems are so graphically violent that I have to blur the words with a squint or look away from the text. Owen does not follow the advice of Emily Dickinson “To tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” He tells all the truth period, and the truth about World War I is that it was graphically violent.
Wilfred Owen was the last boy to love or seek violence. He was born March 18, 1893 in Shropshire England in a middle class family to Thomas and Harriet Owen, the eldest of four children. He loved romantic poetry, especially that of John Keats, the Bible, and his family, with a special devotion to his mother, to whom he wrote long letters during his time in the war. After graduating from high school in 1911, he passed his entrance exams to University but his parents could not afford the tuition. He considered a clerical career and spent a year working as an assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, serving the sick and poor of the parish. The experience was apparently both disappointing and educational, causing him to become disillusioned with the Church of England because of its inadequate attention to helping the needy. In 1913 he went to France and worked as a private tutor, developing a love for France and its people.
Traumatic experiences inspire many people to want to express their feeling in writing or art, but not everyone is as prepared to do so as was Wilfred Owen. From his childhood, no matter what else he was doing he was reading and studying poetry. He was sincere in thinking, a truth seeker, and actively sought experiences that would build his character. It is worth reading about his life and the lives of all the World War I poets because their biographies provide us a window to a time in which our civilization changed to something darker and less innocent than it had been before. They were thoughtful intelligent men who bear intimate witness to a time when the evil forces that had long been building strength had their way with the world.
I chose this poem today because, besides being one of the most iconic of World War I, its final lines capture the exact nature of the spiritual fissure between past and future. Dulce et decorum est patria mori is a line from the Roman poet Horace (Odes III.2.13) that means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Wilfred Owen was killed in action November 4, 1918 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. His mother received the telegram on Armistice Day as the bells were ringing to celebrate peace.
Dulce et Decorum Est
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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.
Wilfred Owen. In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 30, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Owen
Wilfred Owen. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved May 30, 2014, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/Wilfred-owen