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Dulce et Decorum Est

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English Literature

Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Dulce et Decorum Est' displays the harsh reality of soldiers during World War One. The poem focuses on the death of one soldier after being gassed by mustard gas and the traumatic nature of such an event.

Summary of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Written In

1920

Written By

Wilfred Owen

Form

Two interlocking sonnets

Meter

Iambic pentameter is used in the majority of the poem.

Rhyme Scheme

ABABCDCD

Poetic Devices

EnjambmentCaesuraMetaphorSimileConsonance and AssonanceAlliterationIndirect speech

Frequently noted imagery

Violence and warfare(Loss of) innocence and youthSuffering

Tone

Angry and bitter

Key themes

The horror of war

Meaning

It is not 'sweet and fitting to die for one's country': war is an awful and horrifying thing to experience.

Context of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

Biographical context

Wilfred Owen lived from 18 March 1983 to 4 November 1918. He was a poet and fought in World War One. Owen was one of four children and spent his early childhood in Plas Wilmot before moving to Birkenhead in 1897.

World War One

World War One began on 28 July 1914. The war lasted just over four years before an armistice was called on 11 November 1918. Around 8.5 million soldiers died during the war, and the heaviest loss of life occurred during the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.

Owen received his education at the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury school. In 1915 Owen enlisted in the Artists Rifles, before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment in June 1916. After being diagnosed with shell shock Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met Siegfried Sassoon.

In July 1918 Owen returned to active service in France and toward the end of August 1918 he returned to the front line. He was killed in action on 4 November 1918, just one week before the signing of the Armistice. His mother did not find out about his death until Armistice day when she received a telegram.

Shell shock: a term which is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shell shock was the result of the horrors soldiers witnessed during the war, and the psychological effect such horrors had on them. The term was coined by British psychologist Charles Samuel Myers.

Siegfried Sassoon: an English War poet and soldier who lived from September 1886 to September 1967.

Dulce et Decorum Est, image of Wilfred Owen, StudySmarterWilfred Owen, gettyimages

Literary context

The majority of Owen's work was written as he was fighting in World War One between August 1917 and 1918. Other famous anti-war poetry written by Owen includes 'Anthem for the Doomed Youth' (1920) and 'Futility' (1920).

World War One resulted in an era of war and anti-war poetry, written most commonly by soldiers who fought and experienced the war such as Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. Poetry became an outlet for such soldiers and writers to express and cope with the horrors they had witnessed while fighting, by expressing what they had experienced through writing.

For instance, Owen wrote much of his poetry while at Craiglockhart hospital, where he was treated for shell shock between 1917 and 1918. His therapist, Arthur Brock, encouraged him to convey what he experienced during the war in poetry.

Just five of Wilfred Owen's poems were published before his death, the majority were published later in collections including Poems (1920) and The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (1963).

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ poem analysis

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.

Title

The poem's title 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is an allusion to an ode by the Roman poet Horace titled 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'. The quotation's meaning that it is 'sweet and fitting to die for one's country' juxtaposes the poem's contents that describe the horrors of war and declares 'Dulce et Decorum Est' to be an 'old lie'.

Allusion: an implied reference to another text, person or event.

The juxtaposition of the poem's title with its content and final two lines ('The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori') underlines the meaning of Dulce et Decorum Est. The argument at the heart of the poem is that it is not 'sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. There is no glory in war for the soldiers; it is an awful and horrifying thing to experience.

The title 'Dulce et Decorum Est' comes from Horace's collection of six poems known as the Roman Odes which are all focused on patriotic themes.

During his lifetime, Horace witnessed the civil war which followed Julius Caesar's assassination, Mark Anthony's defeat at the battle at Actium (31 BC), and Octavian's (Caesar Augustus) rise to power. Horace's own experience of warfare influenced his writing, which essentially stated that it is better to die for one's country than to die fleeing battle.

Why do you think Owen has used such a famous quote in his poem? What is he critiquing?

Form

The poem consists of two sonnets. Although the sonnets are not in their traditional form, there are 28 lines in the poem across four stanzas.

Sonnet: a form of a poem made up of one stanza consisting of fourteen lines. Usually, sonnets contain iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: a type of meter that consists of five iambs (an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable) per line.

Structure

As stated, the poem is made up of two sonnets across four stanzas. There is a volta between the two sonnets, as after the second stanza the narrative shifts from the experiences of the entire regiment to the death of one soldier.

Volta: a 'turn' / change in the narrative in a poem.

In addition to consisting of two sonnets, the poem follows an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme and is mostly written in iambic pentameter, two defining features of sonnets. Sonnets are a traditional form of poetry, appearing around the 13th century.

Owen subverts the traditional sonnet structure by splitting each sonnet across two stanzas. This subversion of traditional poetic form is reflective of how the poem is critical of traditional conceptions of warfare and dying while fighting for one's country. Sonnets are typically considered a form of romantic poetry.

By fracturing the sonnet form, Owen undermines the romantic associations of the form by making it more complex than a traditional sonnet. This could be a critique of how people romanticised the war-effort and dying in war. By taking a traditionally romantic form of poetry and subverting our expectations of its structure, Owen highlights how the expectations of soldiers entering war were fractured, their innocent perception quickly shattered.

Stanza one

The poem's first stanza consists of eight lines and describes the soldiers as they 'trudge' forward, some 'asleep' as they walk. This stanza describes the soldiers as a unit, highlighting how they are all suffering, as indicated by the repetition of 'all' in the line 'All went lame; all blind'.

The danger the soldiers will soon face is foreshadowed in the stanza's final two lines, as Owen states that the soldiers are 'deaf' to the 'gas-shells' behind them, informing the reader that the soldiers cannot hear the danger heading toward them. Further, the verb 'deaf' and noun 'death' are homographs, each sounding like the other but with different spellings and meanings. The use of the verb 'deaf' therefore underpins the danger of 'death' ever-present in the soldiers' lives.

Stanza two

The second stanza contains six lines. While the narrative of the second stanza still focuses on the soldiers as a unit, the action of the poem shifts as the soldiers react to the 'gas'. A sense of urgency is created in the stanza by the exclamatory sentences in the first line and the use of active verbs such as 'yelling', 'stumbling', and 'flound'ring', adding to the sense of panic.

Stanza three

The poem's third stanza is considerably shorter than the first two, consisting of only two lines. The shortness of this stanza emphasises the shift in the narrative (or volta) as the narrator focuses on the actions and suffering of a single soldier who is 'guttering, choking, drowning' from the mustard gas.

Stanza four

The poem's final stanza consists of twelve lines. The majority of the stanza describes the soldier's death and how the soldiers 'flung him' in the wagon as they continued on their march after the gas attack.

The final four lines of the poem refer back to the poem's title. Wilfred Owen directly addresses the reader, 'my friend', warning them that the phrase 'Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori' is an 'old lie'. The final line of the poem creates a break in the iambic pentameter, foregrounding it.

Moreover, these final lines create an almost cyclical narrative, as the poem concludes as it began. This structure emphasises the meaning of the poem that it is not 'sweet and fitting' to die for one's country, and the fact that soldiers are being led to believe so is as cruel as war itself.

Dulce et Decorum Est, soldiers on a battlefield, StudySmarter World War One Soldiers, pixabay

Poetic devices

Enjambment

Enjambment is used throughout 'Dulce et decorum est' to allow the poem to flow from line to line. Owen's use of enjambment contrasts with his use of iambic pentameter and the ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, which rely on structural constraints. For instance, in the second stanza Owen writes:

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Here, the continuation of one sentence from one line to the next underpins the continuation of the soldier's movements, emphasising the desperate state the soldier finds himself in.

Enjambment: The continuation of a sentence from one line of a poem onto the next.

Caesura

Caesura is used to create effect in the poem to fragment the poem's rhythm. For instance, in the first stanza Owen writes:

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

Here, the use of caesura creates the short sentence 'men marched asleep'. By breaking up the line a matter of fact tone is created: the men are marching half-asleep, and many have lost their boots. The tone has a military style to it, with short abrupt sentences. Although the sentences aren't commands, they hold a similar authority due to their simplistic nature.

Why do you think Owen wanted to fragment the rhythm of the poem? Consider how it impacts the poem's tone.

Language devices

Alliteration

Owen utilises alliteration throughout the poem to emphasise certain sounds and phrases. For instance in the final stanza there is the line:

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face"

The alliteration of 'w' emphasises the words 'watch', 'white', and 'writhing', highlighting the narrator's horror as the character slowly dies after being gassed.

Consonance and assonance

Alongside repeating the first letters of words, Owen repeats consonant and assonant sounds in his poem. For instance in the line;

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs"

The consonant 'r' sound is repeated, creating an almost growling tone. This repetition contributes to the tone of anger present throughout the poem and indicates the anguish of the suffering soldier.

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues."

In the above line, the assonant 'i' sound is repeated, placing a particular emphasis on the word 'innocent'. The emphasis on the innocence of the soldiers against the horrifying death underscores the unfair and awful nature of war.

Metaphor

One metaphor is used in the poem:

Drunk with fatigue

Even though the soldiers are not literally drunk on fatigue, the imagery of them acting in a drunken state exemplifies how exhausted they must be.

Simile

Comparative devices such as similes are used to enhance the imagery of the poem. For instance the similes:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks"

and

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags"

Both similes compare the soldiers to elderly figures, 'hags' and 'old beggars'. The comparative language here underpins the exhaustion faced by the soldiers. The majority of soldiers would have been young boys, around the ages of 18-21, making this comparison unexpected, further highlighting how exhausted the soldiers are.

Additionally, the image of these young men as 'hags' and 'old beggars' demonstrates how they have lost their youth and innocence since joining the war effort. The reality of war has aged them far beyond the age they actually are, and their innocent perception of the world has been shattered by the reality of war.

Indirect speech

At the opening of the second stanza, Owen uses indirect speech to create an electric atmosphere:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

The single-word, exclamative sentences of 'Gas! GAS!' followed by the short sentence of 'Quick, boys!' create a fragmented rhythm and panicked tone. The tone and rhythm indicate to the reader that the characters in the poem are in grave danger. This use of indirect speech adds an additional human element to the poem, making the events appear even more vivid.

Dulce et Decorum Est, image of a gas-mask from World War One, StudySmarterGas-Mask, pixabay

The imagery and tone of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

Imagery

Violence and warfare

A semantic field of violence is present throughout the poem; 'blood-shod', 'yelling', 'drowning', 'writhing'. This technique, combined with a semantic field of warfare ('flares', 'gas!', 'helmets'), underpins the brutality of war. The imagery is carried throughout the poem, leaving the reader no choice but to be confronted with the horrifying images of fighting.

The use of such brutal and violent imagery contributes to the meaning of the poem by opposing the positive ideals of fighting for your country. Owen's use of violent imagery makes it undeniable that there is no real glory in dying for your country when you recognise the suffering that soldiers face.

Youth

Images of youth are utilised throughout the poem to contrast with the brutality of warfare, highlighting its negative effects. For instance, in the second stanza, the soldiers are referred to as 'boys' while in the final stanza Owen refers to those who chose to enlist, or who may choose to do so, as 'children ardent for some desperate glory'.

These images of youth can be associated with innocence. Why do you think Owen may have intentionally created this association?

Suffering

There is a clear semantic field of suffering present throughout the poem. This is particularly evident in Owen's use of litany when describing the soldier's death;

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Here, the use of litany and continuous present tense emphasise the frantic and agonising actions of the soldier as he desperately tries to breathe without his gas mask.

Litany: the listing of things.

This imagery associated with suffering once again contrasts with images of youth and innocent present in the poem. For instance the line:

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

This line underpins how the gas has damaged the 'innocent tongues' of soldiers, who now must suffer despite committing no sin. Such horrors happening to innocent people underpin the unfair and cruel nature of war.

Tone

The poem has an angry and bitter tone, as the narrator clearly disagrees with the idea promoted by many during World War One that is is 'sweet and fitting' to die for one's country while fighting in a war. This bitter tone is particularly notable in the imagery of violence and suffering present throughout the poem.

The poet doesn't shy away from the horrors of war: Owen makes them blatantly clear, and in doing so demonstrates his bitterness towards the reality of war and the false perception of 'dulce et decorum est'.

Themes in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen

The horrors of war

The dominant theme throughout the poem is the horrors of war. This theme is evident in both the literary context of Owen's writing, as he was an anti-war poet who produced much of his work while 'recovering' from shell shock.

The idea that the scenes the narrator has faced still haunt him in 'smothering dreams' indicates to the reader that the horror of war never truly leaves one. While they experience warfare through the images of 'froth-corrupted lungs' and a 'green sea' of gas present in the poem, Owen experienced such occurrences in reality, as did many other soldiers. Thus, the theme of the horror of war is present in both the content and context of the poem.

Dulce et Decorum Est - Key takeaways

  • Wilfred Owen wrote 'Dulce et Decorum Est' while residing at Craiglockhart hospital between 1917 and 1918. The poem was published after his death in 1920.
  • The poem displays the reality of soldiers during World War One, in contrast to the belief that it is 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.'
  • The poem consists of four stanzas of different line lengths. Although the poem does not follow a traditional sonnet structure, it comprises two sonnets with an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter throughout most of the poem.
  • Owen uses language devices such as metaphor, simile, and indirect speech in the poem.
  • Violence and warfare as well as youth and suffering are all prevalent images throughout the poem, contributing to the theme of the horror of war.

Dulce et Decorum Est

The message of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is that it is not 'sweet and fitting to die for one's country', war is an awful and horrifying thing to experience, and dying in war is equally if not more awful.

'Dulce et Decorum Est' was written during Wilfred Owen's time at Craiglockhart hospital between 1917 and 1918. However, the poem was published after his death in 1920.

'Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori' is a Latin saying that means 'It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'.

'Dulce et Decorum Est' is about the reality and horrors of war. It is a critique of the belief that there is glory in dying for your country.

The irony of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is that the soldiers suffer greatly and die in horrific ways, thus making the belief that it is 'sweet and fitting' to die for your country seem ironic.

Final Dulce et Decorum Est Quiz

Question

Who is the author of 'Dulce et Decorum Est'?

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Answer

Wilfred Owen

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Question

True or false? 'Dulce et Decorum Est' was published in 1917?

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Answer

False! Although Owen wrote the poem during his time at Craiglockhart hospital between 1917 and 1918 the poem was not published until after his death in 1920.

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Question

What is 'Dulce et Decorum est' an allusion to?

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Answer

The poem's title 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is an allusion to the work of the Roman poet Horace.

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Question

What does 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' translate to?

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Answer

'It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.'

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Question

True or false? The poem consists of two interlocking sonnets?

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Answer

True! 

The poem consists of two sonnets. Although the sonnets are not in their traditional form, there are 28 lines in the poem across four stanzas. 

Show question

Question

What meter is used for the majority of the poem?

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Answer

There is no set meter

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Question

Where is there a shift in narrative (volta) in the poem?

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Answer

At the end of the second stanza/ beginning of the third stanza

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Question

What literary device(s) is this quote an example of?


"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time"

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Answer

Enjambment, alliteration, syntax

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Question

True or false? Owen uses alliteration in 'Dulce et Decorum Est.'

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Answer

True! For instance in the line;

"Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge"

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Question

Which of these cases of imagery are not present in the poem?

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Answer

Violence and warfare

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Question

What themes does the poem not explore?

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Answer

Victory in battle

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Question

What is the poem's tone?

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Answer

Fustrated

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Question

What rhyme scheme is used in the poem?

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Answer

ABABCDCD  

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Question

Explain how irony is used in the poem's title.

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Answer

The poem's title is ironic because Owen is showing how war is not at all "sweet" or "fitting," but horrific and unjust. 

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Question

What is enjambment in poetry?

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Answer

The continuation of a line of poetry into the next line without punctuation. 

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