“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
The poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen details the experiences he went through while fighting in the First World War. His main goal was to dispel the commonly held assumption that soldiers who survive in combat are heroes. He does not agree with the concept of dying for one’s country being an act of patriotism as depicted in the title of the poem. To drive his message home, Owen employs several literal and poetic devices throughout the poem.
In each of the four stanzas of the poem, the poet conveys specific messages to the audience. The first stanza has rather an unusual opening that takes the reader directly into the ranks of soldiers, who are described as motley and sick and resemble old beggars and hags. The speaker tactfully uses similes to provide rhythm and flow. He also uses punctuation marks to mirror the disjointed efforts put across by the soldiers in their effort to keep the peace. The soldiers have been beaten by the trauma of war. Stanza two takes the reader deeper into the chemical warfare scenes where one soldier is caught up and left behind by his colleagues. When the call for GAS rents the air, he does not put on his helmet and gas mask as quickly as he should save him from the toxins.
The poet describes the rapid action of putting on the mask as an ecstasy of fumbling to emphasize its sense of urgency. At this point, the poem gets metaphoric and personal as the poet describes the gas victim as a drowning man. This traumatic experience is further exacerbated by the unreal element conveyed by the misty panes through which the speaker observes. Although stanza three is only two lines long, the speaker uses it to deliver his message.
The atmosphere created by the struggling soldier and the green gas is like a dream to the speaker and it adds salt to his wounds. In stanza four, the poet invites the reader to reflect on the experiences that soldiers go through in battle zones. He picks issues with those who are quick to praise the fallen soldiers. Owen deconstructs the death that death on the battlefield is sweet as many choose to believe.
The main themes in the “Dulce et Decorum Est” poem include war, propaganda, politics, hero-worship, and patriotism. The poem mainly focuses on the experiences that soldiers who participated in the First World War underwent. The speaker is keen on contrasting the real war experiences and the notion of glorification that often describes fallen soldiers are heroes (Muin 4). The poet also trains his guns toward those propagating and glorifying war. He argues that war causes death and destruction and, thus, does not deserve to take place in the first place. Often, politics play a central role in a war of any kind. Ironically, politicians do not go to war but use innocent men instead to fight their causes. Owen uses this poem to condemn this approach and take sides with the innocent soldiers.
In addition, war brings with it an aspect of hero-worshipping. Those who survive wars are often treated as heroes and even bequeathed with different awards. However, having witnessed war first-hand, the speaker believes that those who survive wars for the longest time are those who kept their heads low all the time to avoid being spotted by the enemy (Owen 1). This means that the so-called war heroes could just be cowards who sacrificed their colleagues for their safety. The poem also carries a heavy message of patriotism as an overriding theme. The Latin phrase “Dulce et Decorum Est” means “the sweetness and appropriateness to die for your country.”
During the First World War, many young soldiers were inspired by the concept of patriotism to join. Nonetheless, the reality on the ground exposed them to horrors of the war, experiences that shook their patriotism claims.
Owen uses this poem to critique antiquated Latin phrases that should not have much significance in this modern age. He challenges the argument of war as an act of patriotism in this modern age (A Study Guide for Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” 28). Unlike in the past when war was glorified, the speaker attempts to convince his readers that war is not necessary at all. Owen has structured his poem by first using a double sonnet with a total of 28 lines. He has also used end rhymes and pentameter in several lines. In the first stanza, the reader is introduced to such words as “beggars, hags, trudge, bent, haunting, sacks, and cursed” (Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est” 12).
This is the language of deprivation and poverty. He intentionally used them to contrast the supposed glory that many have associated the battlefield with. The poet is using figurative language to fight literal language.
By asserting that the soldiers seem sleepy out of exhaustion, the poet could be implying that the dream world is not too far. This dream world should be an improvement of their current resting place. In this poem, Owen employs several poetic devices, including alliteration, iambic pentameter, and assonance, to bring out the dark and dirty feelings that define the battlefield. In assonance, the poet makes a repetition of vowels across lines. Examples include double, under, cursed, sludge, haunting, turned, and trudge.
This brings a rumbling background that denotes distant explosions. On its part, alliteration is where the poet repeats sound speeches in word sequences that are close to each other. Indeed, Owen employs constant sound at the start of words to emphasize the syllable. Although the iambic pentameter is dominant throughout the poem, a few lines break the rhythm like it is in line 5 of stanza 5.
Owen deliberately used this inconsistency to reflect how strange the situation was. The iambic feet are added more power by an opening trochee and spondee. A trochee is the use of both stressed and unstressed syllabuses while a spondee refers to two stressed syllabuses. The line “Men marched / asleep. / Many / had lost/ their boots” (Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, line 5) emphasize the exhaustion that defined the men. By matching through the thick sludge, the men lost their boots. The other spondee is portrayed in line 20, which also depicts alliteration and simile. The line, “His hanging face, /like a/ devil’s / sick of sin” (Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, line 21) is also supposed to allow the reader room for the imagination of what a devil looks like.
Through the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen has attempted to dissuade his readers from falling into the trap of deception. He has elaborately argued that war is an unnecessary thing and must be avoided at all costs. The individuals who are sent to the trenches to fight go through horrific experiences while fighting for other people’s causes. The message could not have been so convincing without the rich literal devices employed by the poet. Language, alliteration, iambic pentameter, and assonance have helped drive the point home.
A study guide for Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Cengage Learning, 2016.
Muin, Ben. “The Soldier” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Different Representations of the First World War in Poetry. GRIN Verlag, 2020.
Owen, Wilfred. Dulce Et Decorum Est and Other Poems: Poems by Wilfred Owen, War Poet. Independently Published, 2017.