Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Introduction .. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Europe’s political map looked so much different from what is today. The attitude of the rulers towards their citizenry, economy and war was also starkly different. Stable borders, responsible governments, focus on economy, democracy, regard for democracy, and most importantly, aversion to wars etc. were alien to the rulers then. Smaller countries, despotic self-indulgent rulers, disregard for well-being of the subjects, and a ruinous penchant for long-drawn battles made blood-letting a ritual of living. Kings and dukes loved wars and glorified it as a necessary evil for a proud state. In winning battles, kings and commanders took little part themselves, but prodded thousands of young men to plunge in it as a sacred duty. Through rousing patriotic songs, people were enthused to go out and fight, no matter the suffering.
Conditions in the battle field were ghoulish. Soldiers died like rats as medical support for the wounded was scanty. Despite the grisly scenes of suffering, people came out to fight and die as their vainglorious commanders and monarchs conjured up dreams of valour and victory. As a result of this deadly cocktail of patriotism and self-aggrandizement, battles dragged on inexorably soiling blood on every square inch of the battle field.
This poem graphically portrays the horrors of the battlefield, and the author sighs in frustration and disbelief to reflect how empty, inculcated patriotism has led to so much suffering.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 1 .. The battle had been savage and brutal. Under the weight of injuries, starvation, and an enemy fighting with extremely lethal weapons like poisonous gases, allied soldiers are down on their knees. Too demoralized and etiolated, they can barely stand erect, and walk steadily. They are escaping a murderous assault by the enemy soldiers. They barely hang on to their lives, hoping to flee to safety. Their feet are deep under the mud, and some of them cough intermittently to let their lungs eject the poisonous gases they have inhaled. The slow walk to safety is punctuated by blinding flares from enemy gas shells.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 2 .. Despite their drained body and mind, they try to make the best of a hopeless situation. They call out to one another about the gas shells bursting nearby, and ask their comrades to hasten their sagging feet. The author sights a fellow soldier struggling to stay afloat in the shallow waters of the nearby sea. He wants to swim, but can’t. He is too weak to do so. Right before the author’s eyes, he slowly drowns to death. It is a nerve-wracking sight, too horrendous to endure.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Meaning of Stanza 3 .. He tries to reach out to the author for help, but neither he, nor the author is undone. He gulps down water, and breathes his last.
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.
Meaning of Stanza 4 .. The sight of the soldier drowned to death is thrown into an army wagon that collects dead bodies of soldiers. Fear, pain, struggle and sorrow are writ large in his face. His eyes pop out as if to say something, but he is dead. He has suffered excruciating pain as his choked lungs tightened its grip around his throat. Seeing him in this state is a harrowing and ghastly sight.
After going through such ordeal, the author claims, no one would sing the praise of a fighting soldier’s life, nor would he say that dying for the motherland is so great glory.