Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

At a time when accounts of war were heavily romanticized, Wilfred Owen's poetry was blunt and real. Having been swayed to volunteer for service in World War I in part by the glory of war, Owen felt it was his duty to relay the harsher truth, writing in a letter to his mother: "All a poet can do today is warn." His best known poem: Dulce et Decorum Est, is brutal even by today's standards.

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.
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 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.

Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire, England. Teaching in France at the start of World War I, he joined the army in 1915. During that time met and befriended many writers, including Sigfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and H.G. Wells. He died in battle one week before the end of the war, and his parents heard of his death while the armistice bells were ringing. He would become one of the most admired war poets of all time.


Blogger Jeff said...

You and I know what it means- but it'd be nice to offer a translation of the last line. Not hard to find, online, though...
Great, GREAT site.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is fitting and good to die for one's country. Owen calls it a lie after witnessing so much death. Go figure.

His is a powerful sentiment and one that is missing in America today. Across the political spectrum we have these solemn expressions regarding the dead soldiers in Iraq.

Only a psychotic would regard those who have died in Iraq as fitting and good. Instead of the sycophantism of dead heroes we should have some outrage at live thugs.

This country is doomed to dark times because of the earnest support for militarism.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Owen was one of the most powerful poets of the century.

To mark the rededication of the Coventry Cathedral (which was gutted by German bombing in 1940) Benjamin Britten composed his "War Requiem" which interleaves the text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead ("Requiem Mass") with poems of Wilfred Owen. The vocal solo parts were sung at the first performance by an Englishman (Peter Pears), a German (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and a Russian (Galina Vishnevskaya). It gets inside the poems in a way that just reading can't.

World War I was a monumental folly that created the world we livwe in today --- in particular the seeds of the modern Middle East that have flowered so monstrously today were sown then. By men of good intentions, of course.

And kept going long years after anything might have been gained , killed 10 million people, destroyed four empires (Russain, German, Austrian, and Turkish) and prepared the ground for the next "big one" which killed 6 times as many.

On a smaller scale (but perhaps not for the Iraqis) the same combination of woodenheadedness, ambition, egotism, and will keep the Iraq war going and perhaps spread it, while washing back on us in ways yet unimagined. Who will write the "War Requiem" for American democracy 50 years from now?


11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first read this poem in my NY public high school 30 years ago.

I remember two things:

1. Thinking how obvious the poem's thesis was

2. Despite this, how jarring it was to see the word LIE used.

Maybe, I then realized, what I thought obvious was not so obvious after all, and that part of the reason was deliberate deception.

Just another example of public schools fostering subversive thought ;^)

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Sheldon said...

Do you have an RSS feed for this blog? I'm trying to find some additional content for my personal web site, and would love to include your blog.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates directly as it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. Its absolutely awful, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I read All Quiet on the Western Front with my students, I include Great War poetry, and of course, this one. There are a number of sources of writing by soldiers in our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think reading those really brings home to the kids that these problems and issues keep cropping up AGAIN and AGAIN. My cousin's husband is in Iraq now, in the same unit with his twin brother. Both of them are fulfilling a commitment they made when they joined the military. The least we can do for them, as a nation, is to enter into conflicts with our eyes wide open, and have the courage to admit when it's not working.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Stephen Colbert said...

Sheldon, I'd be happy to set up an RSS feed, but not sure how to do it. I'll give it a look this week and post it in the comments here.


10:14 AM  
Blogger Guerrilla Scholar said...

Thanks, Stephen. I think turning on the RSS feed is just a matter of clicking a checkbox somewhere in your preferences.

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