Wilfred Owen – Dulce Et Decorum Est – Poetry Lecture and Analysis by Dr. Andrew Barker


This is a First World War poem. For many people it is
the First World War poem, the poem that most brilliantly,
most accurately, most informatively sums up the horrors, the fears, the terror
of being a combatant, of being a soldier in that particular military engagement. The poem is written in 1918. It is written by a man who
soldiered in that war, a man who experienced
what he is talking about in the poem itself. The poem’s title,
‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is Latin. It’s from the Latin poet Horace,
and ‘dulce et decorum est [pro patria mori]’ means, ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for your country’. Other translations of this may be
‘it is sweet and right to die for you country’, or even
‘it is sweet and glorious to die for your country’. Now Owen writes ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’
at a time when military propaganda – to get young men to enlist
to join up and fight – is still going on. The actual horrors of what
the soldiers are experiencing on the front lines have not been made fully apparent
to the British public at the point when Owen gives the world
this particular poem. So Owen is questioning the statement
‘dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ at a time when it is not very popular
to have that statement questioned. This is a time when Rupert Brooke’s poem
‘The Soldier’ which can basically be summed up as meaning
‘if I die, all i want you to think about my death’ ‘is that I have died for my country’. This is a time when that particular sentiment
very much sums up the zeitgeist of the time. That is the sentiment which people in power
want young British men to feel and think. So Owen’s poem here is
very much questioning that. This poem is very much
an anti-recruitment poem. Now, to explain the poem to you,
I’ll do it in three main sections. I’ll read the first stanza,
and explain that. For the second part,
I’ll look at the section of the poem between ‘gas, gas, boys–an ecstasy of fumbling’ and
‘he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. And for the third part,
I’ll look at the final stanza of the poem. Then, at the end, I’ll give you an example
of the type of propaganda poetry that Wilfred Owen is addressing
in writing ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. So this is the first read through of
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. Make sure you have a copy of the poem
in order to annotate as we go through this when I explain the poem to you. 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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, 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. That’s Wilfred Owen, post 1918. To understand what is going on in
the first stanza of this poem, it’s helpful to have a diagram of
the way the First World War was fought. The First World War was fought
through trench warfare. If you look at what we have here,
at the top, we have the German trenches; the bottom, we have the English trenches,
and between those is no man’s land. The idea behind the trench warfare way
of military engagement is that one side will charge the trenches of the others,
they would hope not to get mown down by the machine guns which were at the
front lines of those trenches, and hopefully, some of the soldiers
would get into the trenches and be able to engage in
hand-to-hand combat with their enemy, hopefully killing enough of their enemy
in order to overrun the trenches. It was usually done
in groups of three. The British soldiers would
charge the German machine guns – the first line would almost
inevitably be mown down – hopefully some from the
second and third lines would be able to get into the trenches in order to
wipe out the German soldiers in those trenches. Now, you can imagine being at
the front lines in these trenches, and these trenches are
water-logged, rat-infested, freezing cold, hell-on-earth places. And from these trenches,
you are being asked to charge across no man’s land to
kill your fellow men in the other trenches. At the point when the poem opens,
Wilfred Owen and his troop have done their latest stint on the front lines,
and they are walking away from the front lines, they are going to be walking along here
to come down away from No Man’s Land, away from the trenches
to get to their distant rest. Now remember, at the time when
this poem is written, the English soldier is thought to be the,
or the English soldier is promoted as the clean-limbed, young, Adonis-like,
handsome young man marching off to war for King and country,
and happy to do so. Bent double. So straight away we have this image that
the soldier’s aren’t upright, young men marching gleefully off to war. They’re ‘bent double’. He describes them as
‘like beggars under sacks’. The sacks are presumably their uniforms. ‘Knock-kneed’,
they can’t walk properly. They’re ‘coughing like hags’,
hags are ugly old women. So within the opening lines of the poem,
the soldiers have been reduced by the reality of warfare from these clean-limbed
young men marching off to war, to being compared to
beggars and ugly old women. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, And I love this line,
‘cursed through sludge’. It’s the idea that the earth
that they are walking on is this earth that
Rupert Brooke was to write of as, If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field
that is forever England.’ This is that corner
of that foreign field. There shall be in that rich earth
a richer dust concealed. That rich earth, and that richer dust
is this sludge which he is walking through. We cursed through sludge and you get this image of
the soldiers bent double, absolutely exhausted,
and they’re moving through this wet, horrible, cursed earth,
and they’re going ‘fucking hell…’ And it’s only their hatred of
the actual earth that they’re walking on that’s enabling them
to move in the first place. Hatred can be a very
useful, energizing factor. And the way he described it,
‘we cursed through the sludge’. ‘Cursed’ is not a verb of movement,
but he makes it one here. I’ll read that opening line again. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,
we cursed through sludge, Even the way that you read it
is a great example of the form, the way that the poem is written,
enhancing what is being written about. It’s not written in a sort of
jaunty, jolly, iambic pentameter, of ‘if I should die, think only this of me’. When you read this,
the difficulty of reading it is very much like the difficulty of
the movement that the soldiers have. It’s almost as if the line is
difficult to start up. I imagine reading it like,
for some reason, it puts the image of someone trying to start one of those
old aeroplane engines with it. You put the crank in to start. And the soldiers are there, Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,
we cursed through sludge, And any way you read this,
it is not making their appearance look pleasant, and the way that you say it
is not making their movement look easy. Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Note that it’s trudge, not march. ‘The haunting flares’ are
the flares of no man’s land. They light up no man’s land so the soldiers can
see each other to kill each other. Wilfred Owen and his men are
walking along the front lines and they’ve turned their back
on the haunting flares of no man’s land to get towards their distant rest. So down here, they have their time
away from the front lines and some well earned rest. Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. They’re not literally asleep, but
they’re so exhausted that it’s as if they are asleep. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. What a fantastic line that is. ‘Many had lost their boots’,
the soldiers haven’t got their full uniforms. Literally, that’s what it means,
many of the soldiers have lost their boots,
but they limp on, blood-shod. ‘Blood-shod’ is the great phrase here.
‘Blood-shod’ means, well we shoe a horse, when we put a shoe on a horse’s hoof,
we put a metal shoe on. But these soldiers are blood-shod,
it’s as if they haven’t got their own boots, but where they have bled,
through the soles of their feet, the blood has coagulated and hardened,
and it has formed a protective coating on the soles of their own feet.
The soldiers are blood-shod. And of course, this whole idea of
the soldiers being shod in the same way that horses are shod,
they’ve been reduced to animals here. At the start of the poem,
Owen has reduced the soldiers to- or the reality of the warfare
that the soldiers are engaged in has reduced the soldiers to
beggars, old hags, and animals. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
says Owen in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, another one of his poems. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame ‘Lame’ is another word
we usually associate with animals, we don’t usually talk of
humans going lame. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; When he says they’ve gone blind,
he doesn’t literally mean they’ve gone blind. They’re so exhausted,
they can’t see properly. They are so tired,
they are ‘drunk with fatigue’. This is not the ‘wahey, let’s go and have a party’
type of drunk, this is the ‘slumped at the edge of the bar
at the end of the evening so exhausted’ ‘that you can’t remember what you’re doing there
in the first place’ type of drunk. Deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. ‘Deaf’, they can’t hear. The hoots of tired, outstripped
Five-Nines that dropped behind. The ‘Five-Nines’ are a particularly disruptive
type of German artillery. A bomb, if you like. And they are now out of
the range of the Five-Nines. If you look at the graphic-
if you imagine the blue line, that’s the trajectory, that’s the range
that the Five-Nines can reach. So if they are still within that range,
they can be killed by the Five-Nines. But they’ve ‘outstripped the Five-Nines’,
they’ve got far enough away so they can’t be killed
by the Five-Nines anymore. Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. The ‘hoots’, the sound like an owl
is obviously the sound that the Five-Nines bombs make
as they fall behind the soldiers, as they turn their backs on
the haunting flares of No Man’s Land, and get towards
their well earned rest. Now I’ll read this opening stanza through
one more time and then I’ll show you one of the words in this poem
that I cannot make myself like. So, the poem starts with: 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Now the word I don’t like there is ‘tired’,
because literally speaking, a bomb can’t be tired. It can’t be tired,
it can’t be enthusiastic. To call a bomb tired is surely,
it’s actually a bad piece of writing. That particular line was rendered
in original drafts of the poem. It wasn’t
‘of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind’. Owen wrote, ‘of disappointed shells that dropped behind’
in one of the drafts. And another version was, I think,
‘of gas shells dropping silently’ or ‘softly behind.
‘Of gas shells dropping softly behind’. But the line he went with was,
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. So, he thought it through,
but a bomb can’t be tired. Literally, a bomb can’t be tired. If I want to try and redeem the line,
perhaps we could say that the soldier himself is so exhausted that
he projects onto his environment so that everything he sees,
he sees in the same way that he experiences things himself. So that the bombs are tired
in the same way that he is tired. But, why I don’t like that line is,
I think it can almost be thought of as comic, if you’re not careful. It’s the idea that the bombs could get him,
if they were not quite so tired. The bomb comes flying over
and the bomb goes, ‘ah, I’m just too tired,
I can’t be bothered, I’m too exhausted’. And the soldiers only escape because
the bombs are too tired to actually get them. And this is not the case. You are either within the range
of the bombs, or you are not. So I don’t like that line. We’ll now come to the second section
of the poem, which is the gas attack. The soldiers are out of range
of the Five-Nine bombs, they’re away from No Man’s Land,
they’re out of the trenches, and we hear, 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. So what has become apparent here is that
although the soldiers are out of range of the artillery, they are not
out of range of the gas bombs. And there has been a gas bomb attack. GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling, I think this is a terrific line,
this ‘ecstasy of fumbling’. Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; Plainly, the clumsy helmets are the gas masks
that the soldiers have to put on to stop themselves from
breathing in the gas. It’s mustard gas that was
used in the trenches. The soldiers have got to
get their gas masks on. Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time The ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ which he speaks of here
is the adrenaline rush that invigorates the soldiers,
the exhausted bodies of these soldiers who know they’ve got to
get the gas masks on, otherwise, they’re going to
breathe in the poison gas and die. And they get the helmets and
they’re trying to put the helmets on and they can’t do it,
they’re too tired, they’re fumbling, this ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ that they feel
‘fitting the clumsy helmets just in time’. The pumping of adrenaline that would
go through you under those conditions. ‘An ecstasy of fumbling’ – terrific line. Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; And if I just draw attention
to the word ‘clumsy’ here. Really, a helmet can’t be clumsy
in the same way a bomb can’t be tired. You can put the helmet on in a clumsy way,
but the helmet itself can’t be clumsy. And yet I don’t particularly mind that word,
because a clumsy helmet is is more an accusation made by the soldier
against the helmet. He’s having trouble putting the helmet on
so he calls the helmet, ‘clumsy’. That fits in perfectly with the soldiers’
thought process at this time, I think. But to call the bombs tired
seems to have a little too much sympathy for the bombs. Whereas, as I say,
to call the helmet clumsy, is a nice accusation against the helmet,
totally in character with the soldiers’ thought process. GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; They just got their helmets on in time
to survive the gas attack. But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.– Someone’s not managed to get their
gas mask on in time. They’re calling out, this person is calling out,
he’s floundering like a fish out of water. Fire and lime are
things which burn people. So if you can imagine this man
staggering towards Wilfred Owen as if he’s on fire,
calling out to him. 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. Now the dim panes,
dim through the misty panes. The misty panes are the
panes of the gas mask. The gas mask would make
everything appear to be green. Mustard gas is yellow, but
seen through a gas mask, it’ll be green. Owen sees his friend come
staggering towards him, as if he is on fire and
he is unable to help him. Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. He imagines him drowning on
dry land in the poison gas, which destroys your lungs of course. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. He can’t forget this. By ‘dreams’ here of course
he means nightmares. Each dream he has
is a nightmare of his friend staggering towards him,
‘guttering, choking, drowning’. ‘Guttering’ is the sound of a candle-
or the way that a candle goes out is to gutter. I think that word is used more for
its sound than for its image. The image of a candle going out
is often very beautiful, very serene. And I don’t think that’s
what Owen wants to convey. What he wants to convey here is
done more by the sound of ‘guttering’. ‘Guttering, choking, drowning’. So I’ll read that
gas attack section once more. 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. And now we come to
the final stanza of the poem, which is an extraordinary piece of writing,
as if what has gone before isn’t extraordinary enough,
Owen gives us this. And note how the
addressee of the poem changes. Previously, he’s just been
explaining an incident. Now, the poem is specifically
addressed to someone, to a ‘you’, to a person
he later calls, ‘my friend’. But I’ll read it through first
and then do the close reading of each line. 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. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, Obviously, Owen and his fellow soldiers
have picked up the soldier who has breathed in the poison gas,
and the soldier is not dead yet, so they’ve picked him up and they’ve
put him in the back of a wagon. I imagine the wagon as a
rickety, old, wooden wagon, with old wooden wheels
which the soldiers are pulling. But Owen himself is pacing behind it. Note the word he uses to
describe the way the soldiers have placed their wounded comrade in the wagon:
‘flung’ him in. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, They flung him in.
They haven’t placed him in, they’ve flung him,
they know he’s going to die. If in some smothering dreams. I love ‘smothering dreams’ here. Obviously, they’re nightmares again
that he’s talking about. But it’s the idea of smothering. Smothering, usually we use that word
to explain a fire. You get ‘smothered’ by a blanket. When something smothers us,
it takes all the oxygen away, it takes all the life out of us,
and it’s as if these dreams, these nightmares that Owen has had,
they’ve smothered the life out of him. And he’s saying to the person
he’s addressing the poem to, If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, Owen’s pacing behind the wagon,
looking at this wounded soldier in the wagon in front of him,
and he says, ‘if you could watch the
white eyes writhing in his face’, it’s as if the pupils and irises
of his eyes have just shot up. They’re writhing around like that.
They’re- if you wanted to be very pedantic about it,
eyes can’t really writhe, but we know exactly what it means. If there was a situation where
an eye could writhe in the agony usually associated with
the human body and not just the eye, this would be it. And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; ‘His hanging face’,
presumably Owen means a face that looks like
someone who’s just been hung. I tend to imagine that
‘his hanging face’, rather like Edvard Munch’s painting,
‘The Scream’. It’s that picture
that I see when I hear, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; ‘Like a devil’s sick of sin’
may be even more difficult to imagine. What does the face of a
devil who is sick of sin look like? I get the idea when I hear that line
of the devil which is responsible for all evil in the world is watching this,
and is just saying, ‘I’m just sick of this.
This is too disgusting. Even I have got a line.’ To me it’s more prescriptive of the way
the devil feels about what’s actually going on. ‘This is just disgusting,
I’m sick of it.’ Any way you try to imagine the idea
of the face of a devil that is sick of sin, the idea of a hanging face,
the idea of white eyes writhing within a face,
any way you imagine those images, it is not going to be something pleasant
that your mind concocts. And after that, we come to, for me,
two of the most acoustically powerful lines in poetry that I am aware of. If there’s a better line
for conjuring up acoustically, the horrors of someone
choking to death, I don’t know what it is. Listen to this. The sound that this
line actually makes. 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,– If you could hear, at every jolt So as the wagon comes away
from the trenches, we can assume it is going to
jolt quit often. [Jolt, jolt, jolt] And every time it jolts,
Wilfred Owen hears the ‘blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’. That’s what the mustard gas attack
has done to his friend. His lungs are corrupted, there’s froth within,
the blood is coming from his mouth. ‘The blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’. In fact, it doesn’t come from his mouth,
it comes all the way from his lungs. Fantastic line. Obscene as cancer Which I have to say,
I don’t particularly like. I don’t like it because ‘obscene as cancer’
seems to me to be a lazy simile now. Whether or not it was a lazy simile in 1918
is a different matter completely. Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– Now cud is what a cow chews
when it regurgitates its food. And partially, for me, this line achieves the idea
of Owen keeps regurgitating the image, he can’t get rid of the picture
of his friend staggering towards him, ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– The ‘vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’,
conjures up an image of syphilis to me. That was how syphilis
presented itself. These ‘vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’. And it’s innocent, meaning,
sexually inexperienced. The unfairness of the
sexually inexperienced boy dying of syphilis. The bitterness, the unfairness of it. Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– And of course the soldiers who are in this war
can be seen as innocent. They don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re not experienced at life,
they’re young, very young men fighting this war. Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– Then Owen says, 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. ‘My friend’. We’ll come back to
who that ‘my friend’ is later. My friend, you would not tell with such high zest’ ‘Zest’ is keenness, enthusiasm.
‘My friend, you would be so keen to tell’ children ardent for some desperate glory, Children who want to be heroes,
that’s what ‘ardent for some desperate glory’ means. Keen to be a hero. Owen is saying,
‘if you have seen what I have seen,’ ‘you would not be so keen to tell
young men, kids, who want to be heroes,’ ‘”it is sweet and fitting, glorious, right,
to die for your country.”‘ Because, I have seen those young men
dying for our country, and there is nothing
fitting, right, or glorious about it.’ It’s worth noting what Owen
actually asks you to do here, in this final stanza,
which is one sentence, incidentally. In that final stanza,
he doesn’t ask you to imagine what it is like to be
the soldier who breathes the mustard gas. He doesn’t ask you what it is like to be
one of those soldiers who is dying for his country. All he asks you to do is be him,
is be the person who has watched one of his friends
dying for his country. Be the person who has
‘heard the blood coming gargling ‘from the froth-corrupted lungs’. He doesn’t say,
‘see the blood coming gargling’ ‘from the froth-corrupted lungs’
in that line either. He says, if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, In the act of attempting to hear it,
we inevitably see it as well. What Owen asks
the addressee of the poem to do here, it shows a lot of integrity. He’s not asking the person
he addresses the poem to to do anything that
he hasn’t done himself. So of course, the question now must be raised:
who is he addressing the poem to? Now, there’s another Mycroft Online Lecture
which we’ve done on Rupert Brooke’s pre-First World War poem,
‘The Soldier’. And ‘The Soldier’ was a very popular poem,
as I mentioned at the start, for recruiting young men for warfare. And it was very successful for that,
and it would be very apt if Wilfred Owen was addressing the Rupert Brooke
who wrote ‘The Solder’ in this poem. It would be very apt,
but in fact, he’s not. The poem was originally addressed to
a woman called Jessie Pope. It was later addressed to,
‘To a Certain Poetess’. And Jessie Pope was a woman who
wrote very patriotic verses; the sort of woman who would
hand out white feathers to young men to go and encourage them
to get their limbs blown off in the trenches of Flanders. If we wanted to be kinder
to the type of propaganda which was believed in and
expounded by people like Jessie Pope, perhaps we could argue that before
poems like ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ get written, they actually don’t know what the
reality of the First World War trenches is. Until brave young men like Wilfred Owen
experience the horrors of that existence, and have talent enough to write about it,
and bring these horrors back for the public to read and understand,
perhaps it could be argued that the propaganda machine
at the start of the First World War literally thought that what
they were saying was the truth, and perhaps it could be argued
that they didn’t as well. I’ll finish by reading Jessie Pope’s
early First World War recruitment poem, ‘Who’s for the Game’. This is the type of poem that
seems to see warfare as some sort of
overzealous rugby match. So I’ll read this out,
and then read you, for the final time,
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight? Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight? Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand? Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand? Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun? Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun? Come along, lads – But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue, Your country is up to her neck in a fight, And she’s looking and calling for you. Jessie Pope, 1915. Now, as the antidote to this,
we get Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. And let’s remember that Wilfred Owen
was not what we would call a ‘pacifist’. Wilfred Owen was a full-on
soldier in that war. Wilfred Owen elected to go
back to the front lines at the end of the war, to see the war through to the end. And when Owen returns to
fight on the front lines, he is killed. He dies in the final week of warfare. He dies almost one week to the hour,
before the final armistice. So, when this genuine military hero
says this about the act of warfare, the realities of warfare,
this is somebody we have to listen to. This is someone saying that
if you’re going to be sending young men out to fight, let’s make sure you understand the
realities of what’s actually going on there. And he does it through this poem. 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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, 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. Let me just mention one more thing
about the end of that poem. The final line of it, ‘the old lie:
it is sweet and glorious to die for your country’. The poem itself is more or less
written in iambic pentameter. More or less.
And the final lines of it, 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. Don’t we miss something at
the point when he says, ‘pro patria mori’? To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. [Dm dm dm] And I thought for a long time
why Owen ended the poem in the way that he does like that,
and the conclusion that I’ve come to is that, it works as if
Owen has turned his back on the natural rhythm of the poem,
in the same way that he has turned his back on the old lie that is
‘dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’. So we hear, 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. And Owen turns away,
leaving the [dm dm dm] that we expect to
follow the sentiment, behind. That was the Mycroft Online Lecture
for Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. I am Dr. Andrew Barker. Thank you very much.

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