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Summary and Analysis of Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen served as a Lieutenant in the British army during the First World War, ironically he was killed shortly before the Armistice was signed.
Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est is a compelling poem trying to depict the helplessness of soldiers caught in a Gas Chamber. The poet describes the general condition of the men involved in the war, their condition after a shock of a gas attack and then describing the effect of it on someone who lives through it.
Stanza- Wise Summary
Stanza 1 – describes the condition of the men
The poem begins with a description of a group of soldiers retreating from the front lines of the battlefield. The soldiers are bent over with fatigue and are compared to ‘old beggars under sacks’ clearly indicating the crippled state of the soldiers in the war. They are unable to walk because of their ill-health. The soldiers are coughing like ‘hags’ and kept on cursing and walking through the ‘sludge’. The men are exhausted ‘men marched asleep.’ Many of the soldiers have lost their boots, are seen limping on ‘blood shod’, heightening the grim scene. ‘All’ of them were lame and blind. The hyperbole here emphasizes the terrible condition that the men were in. The repetition of the fatigued state of the soldiers is evident throughout the first stanza, ‘old beggars under sacks’, ‘men marched asleep’, and then in the final lines of the stanza, ‘Drunk with fatigue.’ The soldiers are so tired that they did not hear the droppings of the Five-Nines (gas shells) behind them.
Stanza 2 – describes the gas attack
Someone notices the gas shell and shouts, ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ The soldiers are immediately transported into an ‘ecstasy of fumbling.’ They are in a hurry to put on the mask before the deadly poison can take their lives. All except one are successful. He was found ‘yelling and stumbling/ And floundering like a man in fire or lime.’ The narrator looks back and finds the soldier’s protective mask being engulfed into the ‘green sea’. The narrator and the other comrades look upon the ‘helpless sight’ of the soldier dying in agony, ‘he plunges at me guttering, choking and drowning.’
Stanza 3 – recurring dream
Owen makes it clear in this two-line stanza that he can’t stop dreaming about the soldier’s horrific death. This probably links to the neurasthenia (shell shock) he developed.
Stanza 4 – dying soldier
In the final stanza of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, the poet describes the face of the dying soldier. The soldier’s lifeless body was flung into the wagon. The poet saw the white eyes of the soldier ‘writhing in his face.’ The face hanging loose from the body and is compared to the face of the devil who is tired of sin. One could hear at every movement, the gargling of the blood from the forth-corrupted lungs. The pain undergone by the soldier is ‘obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile.’ The final four lines are sarcastically composed to undermine the noble statement of patriotism that it is honourable to die for one’s country. The full phrase that Owen has used to end his poem is ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro patria mori’ which can be loosely be translated to ‘it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’
The poem is composed in three irregular verse paragraphs. The first stanza consists of 8 lines, so do the second and the third which is the most important has 12 lines.
The title of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, is Latin and is taken from a work by the poet, Horace. These words can be translated as ‘sweet and proper.’ The full phrase at the end of the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro patria mori’ can be translated to ‘sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’ But the title and the phrase both are ironical in nature.
Mood and Tone
The mood of the poem is reflective. The poet is thinking about his own condition in First World War.
The tone of the poem is both ironical and sarcastic. The poet tries to present the realities of war through images and haunting words which on the other hand contradict the reality. It is indeed not sweet to die for one’s country.
Use of Imagery
What is most noticeable to the readers in Owen’s poetry is the vividness of his imagery. Dulce Et Decorum Est is full of fine imagery. The poet had been successful in bringing the horrors of the war come alive to the eyes of the readers. Some of the imageries presented in metaphors, others are presented in graphic language that describes the scene as the narrator sees it or remembers it.
Some of the imageries are discussed below:
“We cursed through sludge” captures and presents the frustrations of the men who were mentally and physically drained of their energies as they marched across the battlefield.
To describe the difficulty faced by the soldiers who have lost their boots, the poet uses imagery to intensify the
moment, “But limped on, blood-shod.’ This imagery graphically represented the condition of the men’s feet. A sense of pity is felt by the readers reading those lines.
Other phrases vivid with imagery are “white eyes writhing in the face”, “blood gargling out from the forth-corrupted lungs”, “floundering like a man in fire or lime.”
All these imageries are intended to contrast with the Latin maxim from which the poem’s title has been taken, Dulce Et Decorum Est that is “Sweet and Proper” to undergo the disembodiment, suffering and death for one’s own country.
Alliteration is the close repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words to facilitate narration.
Examples of alliteration in the poem are
- Knock kneed
- Watch the white eyes writhing in the face
- Dulce Et Decorum Est
A simile is a figure of speech in which two dissimilar objects are compared and the comparison is made clear by the use of terms like ‘like’, ‘such as’ and so on. Examples of similes in Dulce Et Decorum Est are:
- ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’
- ‘coughing like hags’
- ‘His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’
Allusion is a reference to other works or cultures in prose and poetry. Here, allusions in the poem are in Line 20 and Line 27-28. In line 20, there is an allusion to the devil- that is evil.
In lines 27-28, the allusion is the most quoted lines of the 20th century.
A new word – ‘bloodshod’ sounds like blood shot so emphasizes the exhaustion that the men felt. Also, it relates to the word ‘shod’ which means wearing shoes. It helps to dehumanise the soldiers as it is something you ‘do’ to horses. It also helps to create the image of the men staggering along ‘lame’ after many had ‘lost their boots’ bloody and painfully.
In a transferred epithet the adjective or adverb is transferred from the noun it logically belongs with, to another one which fits it grammatically but not logically. So in “dreamless night”, dreamless is a transferred epithet. The exact meaning of the sentence is “night when I (or whoever) slept without dreaming,” since a night can’t actually dream anyway. Foolish idea: It is not the idea itself that is foolish, but the person who comes up with it. She rubbed her sleepy eyes: Her eyes are not sleepy; she is. Knowing smile: The smile itself does not know, it is the person who smiles that knows.
‘clumsy helmets’ is used by Owen to highlight the panic that the men are in during the gas attack.
1st person – ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’
2nd person – ‘He’
3rd person – ‘You’ ‘my friend’
In the poem, he uses the first, second and third persons. He uses, for example, “we” in lines 2,3 and 18, and “I” in line 14, “my” (line 15) and “me” (line 16). We find the second person singular when he wants to make us think and make a reflection of the cruel reality of wars, for example: in lines 21 and 25.
Eventually, we can see the third person singular in the first stanza when he is describing how the soldiers were going to fight (their physical problems).
He uses the past and the present tenses. We can see the first person when he is describing the action of the poem, whereas we find the present tense when he talks about his dream (that man yelling out in his nightmare) to emphasise that it is a persistent affliction. As a curiosity, we must say that the “you” whom he addresses in line 17 can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, the “my friend” identified as Jessie Pope. Jessie Pope for one perhaps, his appeal to whom as “my friend” is doubtless ironic.