‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a poem by the British poet Wilfred Owen, drafted at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh in 1917. Owen had been admitted to the hospital after suffering from shell shock after a period of fighting in the Battle of the Somme. At the hospital, he met the older poet Siegfried Sassoon, who had just published his book The Old Huntsman (1917); his direct, unflinching style allowed Owen to bring similar characteristics into his own work.
The title is taken from a Latin tag, repeated in full on the last line. Taken from the poet Horace, it means ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’; a sentiment which Owen’s experience had proven to be an ‘old lie’, and which the poem works to dispel through vivid descriptions of the realities of trench warfare.
Owen sent an early version of the poem to his mother, describing it as ‘a gas poem’; though this seems simplistic, the poem indeed describes a marching column of soldiers too exhausted to notice the sound of the ‘five-nines’ – German 5.9-inch artillery shells – which have ‘dropped behind’, releasing poison gas. In marked contrast to the ‘sweet’ and ‘fitting’ projected idea of combat, the narrator sees, through the ‘misty panes’ of his gas mask, the sufferings of a fellow soldier who has not got his own mask on in time. The description of ‘froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’ is in particular contrast to the idea of this being a ‘sweet’ or ‘fitting’ death.
Earlier versions of the poem were addressed ‘to a certain poetess’, and this has generally been taken to refer to Jessie Pope, a journalist and poet who had espoused jingoistic enthusiasm for the war; she is likely to be the character to whom the sarcastic ‘my friend’ on line 25 refers. The narrator of the poem continues to describe how the damage is not purely the physical, but psychological: the scene returns to him ‘In all my dreams, before my helpless sight’.