DULCE ET DECORUM EST
by Alex P. Vidal
While reading the Aspects of Western Civilization (Volume II) Problems and Sources of History (fourth edition) Chapter 6 on The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Era, compiled by Perry M. Rogers, I came across a very impressive poem written by Wilfred Owen, the greatest writer of war poetry in the English language.
Owen wrote out of his intense personal experience as a soldier and wrote with unrivaled power of the physical, moral and psychological trauma of the First World War. All of his great war poems on which his reputation rests were written in a mere 15 months.
From the age of 19, Owen wanted to become a poet and immersed himself in poetry, being especially impressed by Keats and Shelley. He was working in France, close to the Pyrenees, as a private tutor when the First World War broke out. At this time he was remote from the war and felt completely disconnected from it too.
Even when he visited the local hospital with a doctor friend and examined, at close quarters, the nature of the wounds of soldiers who were arriving from the Western Front, the war still appeared to him as someone else’s story, according to The War Poetry website. Eventually he began to feel guilty of his inactivity as he read copies of The Daily Mail which his mother sent him from England. He returned to England, and volunteered to fight on October 21, 1915.
He trained in England for over a year and enjoyed the impression he made on people as he walked about in public wearing his soldier’s uniform. Owen was sent to France on the last day of 1916, and within days was enduring the horrors of the front line. Here’s Owen’s famous poem:
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. /MP