Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
The poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen was written sometime after the Battle of Ypres in 1915, where gas was first used as a weapon. By using various techniques, Owen is able to outline the horror of such an attack and as a result, try and disprove the widely held belief of it being sweet and honourable to die for one’s country. This poem is a direct attack on the politicians and writers who encouraged people to sign up for the war, a war which Owen believed was taking the lives of so many young men for no justifiable cause.
Firstly, from the very outset, Owen describes the soldiers as ‘bent double’ and ‘knock-kneed’. This is very shocking, considering the fact that many people’s perception of a soldier was an upright man in fine uniform on horseback. Therefore, by doing this, Owen is able to rectify some of the views held by the British public and shows that in reality, fine and upstanding young men have been transformed to beggars and tramps as a direct result of the war. Furthermore, the language used in the first stanza is again used to describe the pitiful condition of the soldiers.
By using religious and hellish imagery such as ‘cursed’ and ‘haunting’, Owen is able to compare the conditions of war to hell in order to try and give an idea of how bad things really were in the war. In the midst of such despair, Owen hints at death by mentioning that the soldiers were trudging towards a ‘distant rest’. Although this looks to mean a literal rest, it could also be a play on words, with Owen actually referring to the fact that all they are doing is trudging towards death.
This again shows how dangerous the war is. Owen is also vehemently against the treatment of the wounded and dead; ‘… we flung him in’. This is referring to the man who has been maimed by the gas attack and is in his last moments. Owen shows that instead of treating him with dignity and carefully laying him down, he is ‘flung’ in to the wagon with no regard for his injuries or feelings. By doing this, Owen is again able to shock the reader and to add weight to his argument that such a war should be discontinued.
The suddenness and unpredictability of actions in the war is explored by Owen by using rhythm. At the start of the poem, in the first stanza, there is a very slow rhythm which makes the reader peruse the poem slowly.
Owen does this to mirror the slow ‘cursed’ trudge of the men as they make their way towards the ‘distant rest’. However, the arrival of the second stanza brings with it an explosion of pace which is accomplished by using exclamation marks and very short sentences; ‘GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! This significantly increases the speed of the poem and hence allows the reader to empathise with the feeling of the soldiers and shows how quickly they have to react in order to save themselves from a long and painful death. This is further emphasised by Owen when he changes the tense to the present in the second stanza. The effect of this is to reinforce the sense of immediacy felt by the soldiers and to further outline how close they are to death. In this way, Owen is able to seamlessly show the reader the true unpredictability of the war; one minute it is boring and normal, the next, life is in danger.
The use of present participles by Owen is also very pronounced; ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. By using these sporadically and in a pattern of three, Owen is able to highlight the urgency and immediacy of the situation, and how people had to hurry for dear life. The importance of the past participles can be seen when the structure and the rhyme scheme of ABAB is broken down between stanzas two and three. By doing this, Owen is able to place more emphasis on the past participles and so the urgency of the situation becomes more apparent.
This is further echoed when the word ‘ecstasy’ is used when referring to gas masks being put on; it is not ecstasy as in happiness, rather Owen is referring to the almost hysterical feeling when one knows that the quickness of their actions will determine whether they will be alive after the next few minutes. This is again used to display the horrors soldiers had to go through day in day out in the war. The changes of pronouns also add to the overall effect of the poem. In stanza three, Owen uses the pronoun ‘my’.
By doing this, Owen is able to tell the reader that he was actually there at the time of the incident and the events he is describing were actually experienced by him, so the event seems more personal and therefore the reader is able to look at it more closely and read it more thoughtfully. In conclusion, the intense imagery of war and its horrors is portrayed throughout the poem. As a result, it is clear that Owen considers the war to be a terrible way of ending the lives of so many young men who are led to believe the old lie of ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.
He believes that the ends the war is being fought for are unjust and so people should not be ‘conned’ into thinking they are doing a ‘sweet and honourable’ duty by serving in the war effort. Crucially, it must be noted that Owen is not against war; all he says is that the type of war being fought is not the right one and to get this point across, he uses emotive and explicit language to let the politicians and pro-war writers, such as Jessie Pope, back at home have at least some inkling of what their ‘boys’ were experiencing on the front.