Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Introduction .. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Europe’s political map looked so much different from what it is today. The attitude of the rulers towards their citizenry, the the economy and war were also starkly different from what we see in modern times. Stable borders, responsible governance, focus on economy, regard for democracy were not given much importance in political thinking. Most importantly, the rulers felt no particular aversion to wars. Countries were generally small. The kingdoms had to bear the curse of despotic self-indulgent rulers, who had scant regard for the well-being of the subjects. A penchant for indulging in long-drawn ruinous battles made blood-letting a ritual for the ruling class. Kings and dukes loved wars and glorified it as a necessary evil for a proud state. As the battles raged, kings and commanders took little part themselves. Instead they, from a safe distance, implored thousands of young men to plunge in the battles as a sacred duty. Through rousing patriotic songs, people were enthused to go out and fight, no matter the suffering.
Conditions in the battle field were ghoulish. Soldiers died like rats as medical support for the wounded was scanty. Despite the grisly scenes of suffering, people came out to fight and die as their vainglorious commanders and monarchs conjured up dreams of valour and victory. As a result of this deadly cocktail of patriotism and self-aggrandizement, battles dragged on inexorably spilling blood on every square inch of the battle field.
This poem graphically portrays the horrors of the battlefield, and the author sighs in frustration and disbelief as she reflects on the empty patriotism that has led to so much of suffering.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 1 .. The battle had been savage and brutal. Under the weight of injuries, starvation, and the enemy’s salvos of lethal poisonous gases, allied soldiers suffer misery and desperation. The soldiers are down on their knees. Too demoralized and etiolated, they can barely stand erect, and walk. They are fleeing trying to escape the murderous assault by the enemy soldiers. These valiant fighters barely manage to hang on to their lives, hoping to flee to safety. Their feet are deep under the mud, and some of them cough intermittently to let their lungs eject the poisonous gases they have inhaled. The slow walk to safety is punctuated by blinding flares from enemy gas shells.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 2 .. Despite their drained body and mind, they try to make the best of a hopeless situation. They call out to one another about the gas shells bursting nearby, and ask their comrades to hasten their sagging feet. The author sights a fellow soldier struggling to stay afloat in the shallow waters of the nearby sea. He wants to swim, but can’t. He is too weak to do so. Right before the author’s eyes, he slowly drowns to death. It is a nerve-wracking sight, too horrendous to endure.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Meaning of Stanza 3 .. He tries to reach out to the author for help, but neither he, nor the author is undone. He gulps down water, and breathes his last.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 4 .. The soldier has drowned to death. His body is thrown into an army wagon that collects dead bodies of soldiers.The dead soldier’s face shows how much pain, fear, and frustration he endured in his dying moments. His eyes pop out as if to say something, but he is dead. He has suffered excruciating pain as his choked lungs tightened its grip around his throat. Seeing him in this state is a harrowing and ghastly sight.
After going through such ordeal, the author claims, no one would sing the praise of a fighting soldier’s life, nor would he say that dying for the motherland is so great glory.