War has poetic potential for the poet who wants to express his resentment, and no poet can do that more truthfully than one who has experienced it at first hand.
One might not think that war has poetic potential. War is systematic and calculated killing and destruction; people become expendable pawns in a big and ruthless gamble. On the battlefield or in the trenches the soldiers are faced with death as a likely outcome, and the noble idea of dying for your country gradually becomes pointless and absurd. War has poetic potential for the poet who wants to express his resent, and no poet can do that more truthfully than the one who has been there himself.
If we assume that a poet is a sensitive and emotional person, it is a peculiar fact that the Welsh poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was also an army officer. He had thought of himself as a pacifist, yet when the First World War broke out, he was one of the many young idealists who volunteered to fight for their country. WWI – or The Great War - has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest and most gruesome wars ever. Weapons were inaccurate, molesting and mutilating more than they killed, and gas warfare was introduced. Owen was one of the desperate soldiers fighting in the trenches on the Western Front in France. He was wounded and hospitalised, suffering from shell shock, but was sent back to the front as soon as he was seen fit. When he was in hospital, he started to write some poems and was encouraged by friends to keep on writing and have his poetry published. However, only a few of his poems were published while he was alive. The tragic irony is that Wilfred Owen was killed by enemy fire only a week before Armistice Day in November 1918. A collection of his poems was published posthumously. His poems tell the tale of suffering and disillusioned soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause they no longer believed in.
The title and the last two lines of the poem are Latin and mean: “It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.”
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 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 floundering 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.
A Closer Look at the Poem
- The poem is visually strong and full of sense impressions. Find some examples of the poem’s observing or reporting style.
- Explain the line “Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
- “Many had lost their boots” probably has a literal meaning – or can it be interpreted symbolically?
- What do the two last lines of the second stanza imply?
- Who are the “children ardent for some desperate glory”?
- In what way is the last stanza different from the two first ones?
- Does the poem in any way carry signs of being written about WWI specifically?
- Search the net for more poems by Wilfred Owen. Choose one or two and present them for the class.
- Find information or maybe even footage from the trench war in France during WWI. Key words: new weapons, gas, manner of combat, movement of the front, casualties.
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