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 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,
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.
The first world war
- Introduction GO
- In Flanders Fields GO
- For the Fallen GO
- Dulce et decorum est GO
- On Passing the New Menin Gate GO
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
'gas-shells': Explosive shells releasing poison gas were used for the fist time during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Chlorine, a greenish-yellow gas, can be made from, among other things, sea-water. It's strong-smelling and very poisonous, and if inhaled melts and burns the nose, throat and lungs.
'clumsy helmets...misty panes': the first prototype gas-masks, bulky and unwieldy, were fitted with clear panels to see through, which easily steamed up.
'fire or lime': both were ways of disposing of dead bodies when burial was impossible. (Caustic lime burns flesh away.)
'guttering': when a candle gutters, it melts, and when a flame gutters in the draught it seems about to go out; here perhaps Owen means to suggest the dying man's face 'melting' in the cloud of gas, and passing in and out of his vision through the small gas-mask pane. A 'guttering' light can also be a symbol of life ebbing away.
'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' ('dulce' is usually pronounced 'dool-kay'): famous Latin words by the Roman poet Horace, around 19BC: 'It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one's country'.
Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire. He was a soldier in the Manchester regiment during the war and was killed in action on November 4 1918, just a week before the war ended. He was one of the first poets to write about the horrors of modern warfare. His poems were collected and published after his death by fellow-soldier and fellow-poet Siegfried Sassoon. His letters from the war have also been collected and published.
In May 1917, in hospital with trench fever, he wrote to his mother that he now understood what Christ's teaching meant: 'Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill...Am I not myself a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience?
These are the words Wilfred Owen had prepared to introduce a collection of his poems which he planned to publish:
'This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory. honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War,
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to the generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.'
The 'heroes' he meant were his fellow-soldiers, heroic in their endurance of appalling circumstances. He was there with them, he wrote, to share and observe their sufferings so that he could speak for them against the war. As a fellow-poet wrote later: 'Owen speaks as a soldier, with perfect knowledge of war at grips with the soldier; as a mind, surveying the whole process of wasted spirit, art, and blood in all its instant and deeper evils.' Wilfred Owen's poetry forced its readers - and other writers - to accept the place of powerful and horrific images in poetry. 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is one of the first modern poems, expressing a political view as well as personal feeling.
It is also a dramatic poem: the events are 'happening' as we read them. The weary soldier's inattention to the gas-shells suddenly becomes an alert - the half-asleep word 'gas' galvanises him to shout his warning. Although written in the past tense, it feels like 'now'. But it really becomes 'now' as the poet describes his haunted dreams. He is speaking to someone, and the reader is put into the listener's shoes. What is the listener's assumed opinion? Is it yours, the reader's? What reply, in words or action, can a reader - irresistibly involved in the poem's feeling and argument - offer?