Lest We Forget: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est”
In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, we’re taking a look at different war poems as a way to remember those who sacrificed their lives for us.
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“Dulce et Decorum Est” – Wilfred Owen, 1917
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.
This is one of the most famous poems from the First World War.
Written by Wilfred Owen in 1917 whilst he was at Craiglockhart hospital recovering from shellshock, “Dulce et Decorum est” captures the horror of war.
It was during his time at Craiglockhart that Owen, who would go on to become one of the best known English war poets, met Siegfried Sassoon, who quickly became an important influence on his work.
The poem is based around the idea of disillusionment; whilst once jingoistic celebrations of warfare where the poetic order of the day, as the war progressed and scores of men were killed, there was a move towards reflecting the futility and cruelty of conflict.
“Dulce et decorum est” is one such work. The words “Duclce et decorum est Pro patria mori”, taken from Roman Poet Horace’s Ode 3.2, mean “it is sweet and right to die for one’s country”.
It was, at the beginning of WWI, a phrase often quoted in celebration of the glory of war.
Here, however, the words are invoked ironically as the reader’s eyes are, like the soldier’s, opened to the realities of modern mechanised warfare.
“Dulce et decorum est” is one of the most visceral and vivid poems to emerge from the period, through which we might remember the true horrors that those who fought for us faced.