One soldier is unable to put his protective mask on in time, leading to a description of the horrible effects of the chemical.It then casts doubt upon the attitude that it is “honorable to die for one’s county,” suggesting that it would be difficult for anyone who has seen the tragedies of war firsthand to feel that way. The narrator sees a comrade drowning as if he were underwater.In that final stanza, Owen turns what until now has been a descriptive poem into a piece of anti-war propaganda, responding with brilliant irony to the patriotic poets such as Jessie Pope (whom Owen specifically has in mind here), who wrote jingoistic doggerel that encouraged young men to enlist and ‘do their bit for king and country’.
Fighting men who were not long ago robust and vital are wallowing in blood and death.
The graphic nature of the poem is fitting as World War I produced more casualties than did World War II and was the first major conflict of the modern era to use tanks and heavy artillery along with the poison gas that is central to the poem.
Focusing in particular on one moment in the First World War, when Owen and his platoon are attacked with poison gas, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a studied analysis of suffering and perhaps the most famous anti-war poem ever written. —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.
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. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
As he put it in the draft preface he wrote for his poems: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.’ Continue to explore the world of war poetry with our post about Leicestershire’s forgotten war poet, the little-known poetry of WWI poet F.
The imagery is as striking and memorable as the structure, though a little more explicit: the first stanza bombards us with a series of similes for the exhausted men trudging through mud (‘like old beggars’, ‘coughing like hags’) and more direct metaphors (‘blood-shod’ suggesting feet caked in blood, implying trench-foot and cut legs; with ‘shod’ putting us in mind of horses, perhaps being used to plough a very different kind of muddy field; and ‘drunk with fatigue’ bitterly reminding us that this isn’t some sort of beer-fuelled jolly, a bunch of friends out for a night on the town). The word ‘ecstasy’ is another bitterly ironic take, preparing the ground for that ironic final stanza: these soldiers are ecstatic not with delirious pleasure but simply with delirium and panic.
As I mentioned in the formal analysis above, the repetition of ‘drowning’ is a touch of genius: where the other rhymes all advance the poem (sludge/trudge, fumbling/stumbling), drowning/drowning brings us to a dead halt.
Even after he physically witnessed the soldier dying from the effects of the poison gas, Owen cannot forget it: it haunts his dreams, a recurring nightmare.
The recurrence of the word ‘drowning’ neatly conveys this.