Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorem est’ is a painful, poignant and blunt depiction of the squalid conditions and distressing experiences which had a permanent effect on the soldiers of the 1st world war. He addresses the subject with absolute honesty and frankness as a soldier himself, which brings out the stark contrast of the reality of war to the propaganda which enticed young soldiers to fight to begin with; Owen’s use of language here shows his deep loathing towards war and misleading propaganda.
Firstly I will address the idea in the poem that war is irreconcilable and contradictory to the notions displayed by propaganda posters of courage, bravery, honour, glory and patriotism. The first stanza of the poem is heavy with negative connotations- the men are ‘beggars’, weak, destitute and dejected, lacking in hope; they are ‘coughing like hags’ due to living in the trenches- rife with illness, disease, gas attacks and dead bodies.
The use of words like ‘haunting’, ‘distant’, ‘asleep’, ‘lame’ and ‘drunk’ create a feeling of inevitable doom; ‘knock-kneed’, ‘coughing’, ‘limped’, ‘blood-shod’ and ‘dropped’ indicate ill health and disease. The theme of loss is also significant here; ‘many had lost their boots’, ‘all blind’, ‘deaf even’, connoting the loss of sense organs as well as property, the small comfort of simply having boots. Through the ‘sludge’ the men ‘curse’ those who were the cause of their suffering, the Germans, war, propaganda.
Nevertheless there is still the theme of duty, and/or a small light of hope amongst the disheartened men- ‘Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots// But limped on, blood-shod.’ Even in shoes full of blood, the men march on, partly because they have to and they have been ordered to, partly because they have to protect themselves, but mainly towards that ‘distant rest’. This portrayal of dedication (to family, cause, life) is in contrast to the positive connotations of ‘bravery’ or ‘glory’. There is nothing positive about the men’s desire to push on, only desperation. This is heightened by the fact that this poem was written in 1917, 3 years after they were promised the war would end by Christmas 1914.
The second stanza could be likened to wakening from a dream- the men are ‘drunk with fatigue’ when a small but urgent voice calls ‘Gas!’ then more urgently, as the danger is fully understood- ‘GAS!’ following on from this is an avalanche of awkward words like ‘fumbling’, clumsy’ and ‘stumbling’ which adds to the urgent, staccato feeling of the stanza structure. This feeling of awkwardness augments itself, then becomes relief (‘just in time’) then turns into pity and excruciating empathy for the ‘someone’ who is ‘drowning’ under a ‘green sea’, as he is ‘yelling out’ and ‘flound’ring’ like a fish, wrenching at the emotions of the reader; and, it seems, of Owen himself.
In the 3rd and shortest stanza, Owen seems to be saying to the reader that the things he had seen were so horrific that he wished he were ‘blind’ himself. He does this by saying that his sight is ‘helpless’, that in his dreams, (one would imagine a sanctuary) even in his dreams he is haunted by the man he saw die as he ‘plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’ The end of this stanza is so abrupt as to have a painful effect on the reader, as if this description is a flashback of Owen’s that he cannot stop his ‘helpless’ subconscious mind from re-enacting in his dreams.
The last stanza is really Owen addressing the reader directly, having described to them the graphic things he had encountered. How there were so many dead that they ‘flung’ them in the wagon, how his dreams were so terrifying that they ‘smothered’ him and how horribly he had to watch his friends die, ‘gargling blood’.
He informs the reader that if they had seen what he had seen, they would not ‘tell with such high zest// To children ardent for some desperate glory,// The old Lie; Dulce et Decorem est//Pro patria mori.’ That ‘you’, ‘My friend’, the reader, would not dream of speaking of the war with ardour, if to create a utopian fantasy for one’s children; if at all.
The fact that Owen capitalises the L in ‘Lie’ along with the ending of the poem with the religiously indicative Latin phrase shows his sarcastic bitterness clearly- he wants the reader to empathise and feel as he feels when he thinks of how he was lied to about a place worse than hell, and even worse, how it was glorified.
In conclusion, Owen portrays the horror of war, with an incredibly graphic nature, as at complete odds with popular considerations. He fills the poem with themes of loss, blindness, illness, fatigue, death, blood, uncleanliness and deafness and likens war to a place worse than hell, worse than the reader could even imagine. He displays war as rife with sickening and squalid substance, and the effects it has on the soldiers who survive as incurable, corrupted, horrific, destructive and vile.