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English Essay, SMU, Singapore In Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen tells a story of his horrific and gruesome experience fighting
University Singapore Management University (SMU)
Subject English
Posted on: 5th Jul 2023

English Essay, SMU, Singapore In Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen tells a story of his horrific and gruesome experience fighting

In Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen tells a story of his horrific and gruesome experience fighting in World War I and how it has since haunted him. Owen describes a day on the battlefield that has left the soldiers mentally and physically broken and bloodied. As the soldiers are returning to the base for the night, there’s an awful gas attack and the soldiers scramble to put on their gas masks.

Tragically, Owen helplessly watched as one of his fellow soldiers choked to death from toxic fumes. Owen is haunted by the excruciating death of his comrade. He addresses the people at home who promote war and urges them to stop encouraging young men to go to battle for personal and national glory. He wonders how they can keep advocating for war without ever experiencing the horror of it. In his poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen reveals the idea that lofty patriotic ideals lead to disastrous consequences through his use of imagery, caesuras, and symbolism.

Owen uses imagery to show how powerful patriotic ideals preached from home can lead to disastrous consequences for millions of youth who have to go to war. Owen uses imagery in the first line of the poem to show how the soldiers are “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.” (1) At the beginning of the poem, Owen does not introduce the soldiers as strong and mighty warriors, instead, he refers to them as “old beggars.” (1) Owen shows how the soldiers have suffered vast horrific events during the war by creating the image of beaten-down, haggard old men.

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This image gives the audience an idea of how weak these men have become after fighting in this horrific war. Youthful, strong men have become weak, old beggars. The men are “doubled,” (1) which implies that the soldiers are two different people. Before the war, they were youthful men who were full of glorified notions from the rhetoric given to them by the government. Now during the war, they have deteriorated into broken creatures fighting for survival. These young men who were once filled with heroic ideals are now suffering the consequences of a lifetime filled with physical pain and mental anguish.

Later in the poem, Owen describes the struggles he’s having with flashbacks of the traumatic events of the war. Owen writes, “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” (15-16) This is a gruesome image of a soldier choking to death from the poisonous fumes. Owen writes, “He plunges at me” (16) to show the desperate action of his fellow soldier needing help. This takes a mental toll on Owen as there was nothing he could do to help his comrade except witness it. When Owen says “In all my dreams” (15), he is speaking of the relentless nightmares that haunt him for the rest of his life.

The national glory Owen thought he was going to gain from fighting in the war instead resulted in a never-ending nightmare. At the end of the poem, Owen describes how “You could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” (21-22) This image shows how youthful men are physically breaking down and deteriorating. Owen writes, “the blood / Come gargling” (21-22) to allow the reader to “hear” the gruesome sounds of a soldier’s suffering.

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‘The people promoting the war have never witnessed the destruction of a human body, and Owen uses imagery to draw the reader into the gruesome things the soldiers experienced. His use of imagery also conveys that after the war is over, the soldiers who survived aren’t filled with feelings of national pride and glory, instead, they’re filled with nightmares of bodies breaking down and fellow soldiers suffering excruciating deaths.

Next, Owen uses caesuras to show how horrific it was to fight in the war, and how it wasn’t worth the lofty patriotic ideals preached at home. Owen writes, “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! —An ecstasy of fumbling.” (9) The soldiers are returning to the base for the night when they are suddenly attacked with an awful gas strike and they scramble to put on their gas masks. By using a caesura, the audience feels a pause in time and it draws the audience into the frenzy of action for survival.

The caesura lets the audience feel as if they were there on the battlefield and what their next move for survival would be. The way Owen makes the audience contemplate how they would react in this situation leads his audience to question whether or not glorified ideals of war are worth fighting for. At the end of the poem, Owen writes, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est /Pro patria mori.” (27-28) The caesura Owen uses in line 27 makes the reader pause and reflect on the message that Owen reveals throughout the poem—that fighting and dying for one’s country is neither a sweet nor a glorious thing.

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Instead, it’s a traumatic and horrific everlasting nightmare. The “Old Lie” (27) was written by Horace, a Roman Philosopher, and translated it means “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” Owen feels Horace is writing a lie that is only used to promote war, and that this lie is wrongfully being fed to young people. Owen uses the caesura to call the audience’s attention to the big lie. And he wants to be certain the audience does not believe it.

Finally, Owen uses symbolism to show how people who promote war don’t understand the devastation it causes to the masses who have to fight. Owen writes, “If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace.” (17) The “smothering dreams” symbolize that even though Owen has described with detail his horrific experience of war, we will never actually experience all that
he endured. Owen uses “dreams” (17) to symbolize that there’s a great distance of understanding between his experience of war and the audience’s perception.

Owen is showing that people promoting war will never understand the horrible life of war and the aftershocks it has on the human soul. Later Owen writes, “Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” (24) “Innocent tongues” symbolizes the naive virtue of young men before being sent off to war, and “vile, incurable sores” symbolizes the decay and destruction of a soldier’s spirit after the war. Owen uses this symbolism to show how their naive ideals were left behind on the battlefield. At the end of the poem, Owen writes, “To children ardent for some desperate glory.” (26) After describing the hell of going to war, Owen addresses the people who sent him to a war that left him broken. Lots of people at home convince young men that they can find personal glory going to fight in the war.

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“Desperate glory” (26) is a symbol for these men wanting a purpose in life, so their purpose becomes sacrificing their lives for their national glory and honor. Owen shows that there are two different versions of war being fought. One is full of a country spewing out lofty patriotic ideals to gain superiority and glory, while the other tears men apart and turns them into broken creatures holding on to survival.

Sally Hansen writes in her article, “Teaching the Poetry of War,” that “If young people care about peace and all their other bright goals as fervently as they say they do, then let them read the words of other youths who went forth with the same idealism, visions of glory, and high hopes for peace and progress. What could be more relevant than war poetry for young boys who may themselves go off to war?” (Hansen 479) Hansen is using the same argument that Owen preaches through his poem. War is not the answer to anything beneficial. The writings of authors who have experienced war firsthand will show others that going to war is not a glorious honor—but going to war is hell.

Throughout “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen reveals how blind patriotism leads to the sacrifice of millions of lives during the war. Owen shows that people place more value on their country’s superiority, national glory, and honor than on their citizens who have to fight these wars. Owen is conveying a message that a country shouldn’t invest in war efforts but should try to improve the quality of life in their country.

Owen feels that he was lied to and brainwashed before being sent off to war. He fell for the “old Lie” (27) that it is glorious and honorable to die for your country. However, with Owen’s use of literary devices, “Dulce et Decorum Est” sends an opposing message. The consequences of war are devastating to human lives and human souls, and it is immoral for our leaders who promote war to manipulate our naive, impressionable youth with their dishonest patriotic ideals.

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