Wilfred Owen

It was odd how a Dylan Thomas feature on AbeBooks.com reminded of feelings and memories I had not considered for years.  I had not indulged in poetry since my post-secondary studies.

Whilst browsing through the eventful life of Thomas, I let my mind wander back to my high school English literature classes.  The first memory that surfaced was the hopelessness, frustration and anger of Dulce et Decorum Est by the doomed war poet Wilfred Owen.  This poem, above all others, left a lasting imprint because of the sentiments and questions of duty expressed by Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est is one of the most vivid and horrific poems of World War I.  The poem is made all the more powerful by the fact Owen was killed in action at the age of 25, just days before the war ended.  The poem was published posthumously in 1920.

The first time I read Dulce et Decorum Est was in high school. It immediately resonated with me and to this day I still get goose bumps when I read it.  I continue to debate whether reading this poem sparked my interest in the Great War era, or if it was an already present connection to that time that allowed this poem to impact me so deeply.  Regardless how it happens, poetry can be an incredibly powerful tool to help understand an event, an experience, or even a lost generation.

Dulce et Decorum Est provides a poetic view of the frustration and anger felt by many soldiers in World War I.  This resentment was often directed towards top ranking officials and propagandists, who had not experienced the horror of war.  Owen provides an insight into the awfulness by describing a gas attack where a fellow soldier cannot don his gas mask in time.  “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light” of his own mask and the swirling gas, he describes watching the man drown in his own frothing lungs.  Owen’s resentment and frustration peaks in the last few lines when he explains if you too were to be present for this experience, “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”.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates as ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country’ – a line from a poem by Roman writer Horace.

For future generations that will never meet a World War I veteran, the raw emotion of Owen’s poetry is an invaluable resource.  Works such as Dulce et Decorum Est aid our understanding not just of the past, but of current events and even those still to come.  The conflict between duty and helpless frustration is a struggle that is still prevalent in the world today.


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 
WWI Image in Public Domain 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.