Poets And Poetry

Literary Analysis Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

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Written whilst receiving treatment for shell shock in Craiglockart, Dulce et Decorum Est is a bitter response to Owen's first hand experience of war and an attack on propagandists, most particularly Jessie Pope. The poem can be divided into three sections: a description of soldiers leaving the battlefield, a mustard gas attack and a challenge thrown out to those who glorify war.

The first section includes a series of descriptions of soldiers that is at odds with the smartly uniformed young men being waved off by loved ones and sweet-hearts, familiar to those left behind. These men have become old and beaten down with exhaustion, pain and fear, "old beggars, bent double" and "hags". Owen wants to show the reality of war, not some false glorification. World War One was the first global conflagration and the first to use large amounts of technology. It was a disaster for ordinary soldiers; practically a whole generation of young men was wiped out.

On top of all this there were major blunders in getting supplies to troops. No wonder then that some "had lost their boots" and walked "blood-shod". The term "blood-shod" not only describes the men's feet covered in blood but brings to mind connotations of blood-shot and blood-shed, phrases that aptly describe the situation. Overall the scene is one of weariness and defeat; the personification of the Five-nines, 5.9 caliber shells, says it all. The weaponry of warfare has taken on the feelings of its victims. It is the soldiers who are "tired and outstripped".

The reader is jolted from the somnambulant generality of the slow trudge from the battle into a specific incident. The urgency and immediacy of the gas attack is presented through the use of the present continuous and the shouted exclamations "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!". Owen uses an extended metaphor of the sea and drowning to recreate the froth-choked drowning caused by a gas attack.

The next two lines are separated to show their purpose as a link between the reality of war and the warning to those who present it otherwise. Owen continues the linked metaphor of sleep walking, dreams and nightmares "In all my dreams", to show how relentless this returning image is; and how awful. "My helpless sight" takes on two meanings here. Firstly, Owen is unable to offer help to the afflicted comrade and secondly, he is helplessly unable to keep his dreams from returning to this episode. Again the use of the present continuous in "guttering, choking, drowning" adds to the constant immediacy of the episode and reiterates the drowning theme.

The final section of the poem is written in direct address to the ironically entitled "My friend". The first line of this stanza forms the future conditional; perhaps Owen, although hopeful, realizes that the intended recipient of the poem will never dream of this terrible scene. Owen's only hope is that the powerful but ugly imagery in this section of the poem will allow them a vicarious insight into the horrors of modern warfare.

The alliteration in "watch the white eyes writhing" seeks to recreate the distortion taking place on the young man's face. It is the face that Owen concentrates on and wishes us to see. The unusual simile "devil's sick of sin" shows the extremes of human cruelty and depravity. We can cause anguish and atrocities that would even sicken Satan.

Owen cleverly links the burning effects of the gas on the young man's mouth with the lies told by those like Jessie Pope in the poem "Who's For The Game". The saying Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori was familiar to most during this period, it means that it is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Taken from the opening lines of an Ode by Horace, it was frequently used to urge young men to enlist. It is the serving up of spewed out, second hand patriotism from a previous era, when war was considered valiant and heroic, that Owen compares to the "incurable sores on innocent tongues".

Although loosely written in iambic pentameter, the variations in the syllable counts for each line, added to the use of caesura, prevent any flow or rhythm in the poem. Owen wanted to break with tradition to show how moral values had broken down. He also broke with traditional language and imagery in an attempt to shock the complacent who send young men to their deaths based upon "The old lie".


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