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Dulce et Decorum est. By Wilfred Owen - background & key themes

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Introduction

Dulce et Decorum est. By Wilfred Owen 'Bent double, like old beggars under sacks' Voted the nation's eighth most popular poem of all time, 'Dulce et Decorum est.,' is one of the most bitterly truthful pieces of literature about war. It was written in 1917 by Wilfred Owen in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where he was receiving treatment for shell-shock after serving in the trenches in the Somme and in St Quentin. Owen had been writing poetry for many years but had little confidence in his work, until he met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient at the hospital and a famous poet. Sassoon encouraged Owen to write more direct poems, using everyday speech, and to openly express the anger and disgust he felt at the callous spending of soldiers' lives by people safe in London. 'Dulce et decorum est. Pro patria mori,' the Latin 'tag' was written by the Roman poet Horace, and was much quoted during the Boer war and after 1914. It means, 'It is sweet and meet (decorous) to die for one's country,' but while Horace meant it sincerely, Owen is using it with bitter irony. ...read more.

Middle

Many are wounded, all are tired, and yet they continue to march on, deaf to the 5.9 calibre shells that are dropped behind them. Suddenly one of the officers warns the men of a gas attack. There is, 'An ecstasy of fumbling,' as men try to put on their 'clumsy' gas-masks just in time. (Readers might confuse Owen's use of the word 'ecstasy' with our modern meaning of it, but in Owen's time the word meant 'madness'.) But one unknown man does not get his mask on in time, for he yells out and flounders "like a man in fire or lime." This simile implies a man trapped in torture. He describes his view through the gas mask a 'Dim through the misty panes,' and, 'as under a green sea.' This removes Owen and adds an almost nightmare-like sense to what he sees. Owen watches him 'drowning' in the gas. And now he still sees him in all his dreams, "guttering, choking, drowning" which tells the reader that this image is so horrifying that out of all the things he has seen, this is the image that haunts him most. ...read more.

Conclusion

Owen wrote the poem in an ABAB rhyme scheme. The entire poem is nearly solid cacophony. Especially the first lines with "Bent double ... old beggars" and "knock-kneed, coughing ... hags" which provides the reader with an instantaneous burst of a horrible atmosphere. He filled it with terrific imagery and used words people would not dare to use when describing war, such as, 'bitter,' 'obscene' and 'corrupted.' The theme of "Dulce et Decorum est." is very clear. Owen's goal is to turn people away from the idea that "it is sweet and decorous to die for one's country" and let them see what war is really like. He wants the reader to see war as one would see mass murder or mutilation. Ironically the same Latin tag was used for bitterness against war by the German poet, Alfred Lichtenstein in 1914. Where 'The Dead' and 'Henry V Act 4 Scene 3' are patriotic, romantic, idealistic. Owen's poem is horrific, honest and angry. Wilfred Owen did fight in the trenches, did see war first hand and did die for his country, but he never covered-up the realities of war. ...read more.

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