Dulce et Decorum Est

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.

Source: Poems (Viking Press, 1921)

Dive in: 
  1. This poem is chock full of similes and metaphors. Read the poem and circle every metaphor or simile you see. Which is the most remarkable to you? What makes it stand out?
  2. How do these metaphors and similes shape your sense of the soldiers’ experience of war? Does it contrast to other famous poems you’ve read about war – “In Flanders Fields,” for instance?
  3. How might your reading of the poem change if the poet had included some contextual details about World War I – about the enemy or “freedom” or “protecting the motherland,” for example?
  4. The rhyme scheme of this poem is surprisingly traditional, and the form is a double-sonnet. The rhythm, though, is often off-balance. Split the poem into 4-line groups and underline every syllable that you think should be emphasized. See what patterns – or lack of patterns – appear. How might those patterns help you recite the poem?
  5. Recitation experiment: try reciting the poem at very different volumes and/or registers. Try a calm recitation through gritted teeth, then a full-blast screamer, then one that emphasizes heartbreak. Your different versions may find different lines or phrases that are central to your interpretation. Which recitation style conveys your sense of the poem most clearly?
  6. Notice how the poem starts with a general description of the soldiers before zeroing in on the one unfortunate victim of the gas attack. Try a similar writing exercise: describe a group of people in vivid detail, then zoom in on one individual whose situation is even more extreme. (For example: a description of grumpy, tired students coming to school, then focus on one student who hasn’t eaten since yesterday lunch.)

Useful Links

  1. Ode 3.2 by the Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century BCE. The 13th line, translated here as “What joy, for fatherland to die!” provides Owen with his title. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0025%3Abook%3D3%3Apoem%3D2
  2. A painful history of the use of chemical weapons in war: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/a-brief-history-of-chemical-war
  3. Some further reading about the use of chemical weapons in World War I, including information about Owen himself: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31042472

 

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