Wilfred Owen is among the most famous poets of the First World War. This is the opening of a poem entitled ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Owen wrote the poem whilst serving as a soldier in the appalling conditions of the trenches.
The title of the poem is inspired by a well-known quote from one of the ‘Odes' of Horace, the ancient Roman poet. In full, the Latin motto reads: 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', meaning 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. Owen was being deliberately ironic: the poem was intended to convey the disgusting horror of war to the British public.
Dulce et Decorum Est' describes a mustard gas attack on a group of war-weary soldiers. Owen's painfully direct language combines vivid realism with an aching sense of compassion. His despair at the crumbling of the moral order – the world's and perhaps his own – are expressed in phrases such as “froth-corrupted lungs', “sores on innocent tongues” and his description of the dying man's face “like a devil's sick of sin”.
The poem is short, just 28 lines, but its imagery creates a lasting and disturbing impression on the reader. The text of the published version is as follows:
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 disappointed shells 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 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.
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.