We are now looking at one of the most important First World War poems, if not perhaps the most popular war poem ever written, and this is Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est.
The phrase ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ comes from Horace, meaning ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’ And of course, in the early years of the First World War, there was quite a lot of enthusiasm among soldiers who hadn’t yet witnessed the full extent of the horrors. And among the enormous number of poems that were written for recruitment purposes, this was a recurring phrase. So one can say that there’s almost a genre of poems that circle around this phrase of Horace’s, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. And Owen very much is aware of that and possibly reacting to it, showing instead in this poem the absolute horrific nature of warfare.
We often think of Dulce et Decorum Est being almost like a trench transcript. But when we look at the actual manuscript version, we realise that instead of a transcript it’s more like a palimpsest as you see Owen working and reworking.
It’s almost like a poet’s workshop, as he’s trying to experiment with particular words. And we sense the moment of hesitation, doubt, or irritation when he just crosses out a sentence and then puts back a new word.
This is a very special draft, because this poem goes through several drafts. But on this draft, you have also the corrections made by Siegfried Sassoon, whom he met at Craiglockhart, and formed this very well known and well documented friendship. And Siegfried Sassoon, while going through the poem, underlined the word ‘ecstasy’, and then he put a question mark next to the line. How can a gas poem produce ecstasy?
Is ecstasy this word, whose religious connotations would not have been lost on Owen, used to suggest a moment of nervous energy, and we have evidence of that across the poem; a limit experience, as it were, where both terror and a sense of exhilaration are fused and confused? Or is it a tremendous sense of bodily release that this word expresses, the sense of being able to come out of the trenches after being cooped up for a long time? For in one of his letters Owen says that the feelings of going over the top, they were like the sensations of going over a precipice where he felt no horror at all, but an immense sense of exultation.
So is the ecstasy of survival being interwoven with the absolute horror and panic of ‘gas, GAS’, which we have here? And it’s quite interesting that here it’s kind of gas, and then the next time the word is repeated, it’s in capitals. And then there is this ‘quick’ comma ’boys,’ and then ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’. So it is that ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’ it plunges us right into the moment of panic and crisis. And then comes ‘- An ecstasy of fumbling’, is it a retrospective account that also refers to his time at Craiglockhart? So we have these two temporal scales brushing against each other, and if we read the poem, they’re almost like two sonnets that have been joined and compacted to the temporal logic of trauma.
If we look at this last line on this page, ‘He plunges at me, gargling, joking, drowning’ and then ‘gargling’ is crossed out, and then ‘gurgling’, then ‘goggling’, and then ‘guttering’ and he has finally found the word he wanted. And it’s a kind of sonic memory that we realised that is happening in the poem, that he’s feeling through some words their shape on the page, the way they sound. So you can almost find Owen groping to reach particular words. And it is only through looking at these draft versions that we can understand how his sonic understanding of poetic form works.
And sound is very important in this poem, particularly important because the whole poem climaxes on a dramatic contrast between tongues, the actual lacerated tongue of the soldier who can no longer speak, and the grand polysyllabic sound of the Latin phrase, ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. So Owen is very much playing on this tension between these different kind of sounds.
Owen is often regarded as the patron saint of pity, and there is ample reason. At the same time, he is the one poet who draws us into these moments of extreme sense experience, moments when limbs are ‘knife skewed’, to quote him, or when the mouth start bleeding, or when the muscles get ‘the shatter of flying muscles’ he says at one point. So, in such phrases we get an understanding of the horror of warfare, and that is important from a historical perspective. There is realism. But at the same time, we should also remember it is not a trench transcript. And what we get here is a very complex relationship between history and narrative, because we have a record of historical brutality and extreme violence, but that is being tied to poetic conventions, to the needs of poetic form and conventions of language.
If we compare Dulce et Decorum Est with another piece of art that was about gas warfare, that is John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting, Gassed, which hangs in the Imperial War Museum. One immediately realises the difference between an aging civilian painter and a young combatant. Because if you look at Sargent’s painting, and it is a majestic piece of painting, you see this line of blindfolded soldiers touching each other and moving towards a kind of vanishing point, and on either side are these pile of bodies, so there is a sense of distance. On the other hand, if you start reading Dulce et Decorum Est, ‘Bent double, like old beggars,’ immediately you’re plunged into the sensory moment. The bodies are already there, when we start reading the poem.
It’s a poem about a gas attack and mustard gas corrodes the body from inside, and brilliantly, or rather terribly, Owen’s testimony also moves from visual impressions that we get in the first stanza, like the ‘marching’, or the ‘haunting flares’. For example, the words that he uses in the beginning are ‘stumbling’. And then he moves from sounds produced between the body and the world, to sounds produced within the body, ‘riding’, ‘choking’, ‘guttering’. So there’s a movement from the visual to the tactile, or rather from the visual to visceral. And this is where the brilliance of the poem lies, because it’s not about objective history, it is not capturing a particular gas attack on a particular day, but rather, in a way that only poetry can, it evokes for us and plunges us straight into the sensuous, almost the tactile thickness of the moment.