As soon as I read ‘Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen, I immediately understood it was a vividly described poem that stirs disgust for war through the use of striking similes, graphic imagery and compelling metaphors. The poem is directed at Jessie Pope, a civilian propagandist, who promoted the war. Owen wanted to counteract her and others, enthusiasm for war. Pope’s poem ‘Who’s for the game’ gave young men false impressions of war whereas Owens’ ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ showed the readers the true and grim realities of war.
In the first fourteen lines of the poem’s twenty-eight, Owen distinctly describes a single and horrific moment in time. The last fourteen lines deal with the reader directly, explaining the significance of the incident. The speaker is amongst a group of worn-out soldiers, who after a spell at the front, are striding precariously towards safety when they are unexpectedly attacked by chlorine gas. After hurriedly pulling on their gas masks, the speaker ‘through the misty panes’ sees one soldier somehow with no mask on, vulnerably stumbling towards him. He watches the man surrender to the gas as he hits the ground.
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The third stanza moves to the speaker’s dreams. In only one couplet, the speaker states that in all his dreams he sees the soldier plunging towards him. Then, in the final stanza, Owen turns to the readers, and tells them that if they could’ve experienced the same dreams and watch the soldier die in the wagon in which they ‘flung’ him then they would not tell their children with such high enthusiasm ‘The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro Patria Mori’ – It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
The poem opens with Owen describing the soldiers as ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.’ This shows how they have been degraded and aged, becoming almost inhuman. Moreover, ‘knock-kneed’ and ‘coughing like hags’ are both examples of vivid imagery and present the men as prematurely old and weakened, which they should not be. These men are supposed to be in the prime of their lives, yet the way Owen describes them does not suggest this.
The phrases ‘Men marched asleep’ and ‘Drunk with fatigue’ show the readers the extent of the men’s exhaustion; they are so worn down they are even ‘deaf to the hoots of gas-shells dropping softly behind’ which sounds harmless and comforting due to the onomatopoeic sound of the word ‘softly.’ This is very effective because readers can envisage the extent of the soldier’s exhaustion. The second stanza is opened with ‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!’ The punctuation here mirrors the panic of men experiencing a sudden gas attack. Also, by making the words disjointed and monosyllabic, Owen highlights the situation’s fear and helplessness. Owen then uses a transferred epithet in ‘Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time….’
The transferred epithet, ‘clumsy helmets,’ shows readers that it is not the helmets that are clumsy but the men because they are trying their hardest to fit their helmets in time, therefore, being very clumsy. Owen fits his helmet in time but looks ‘through the misty panes’ and sees someone ‘drowning’ in the chlorine gas. ‘As under a green sea, I saw him drowning’ introduces the first-person narrative voice to the poem, which brings immediacy to the poem and illustrates Owens’s firsthand experience of the war. The single two lines following the second stanza are placed on their own, highlighting the horror; it is so bad, almost unreal.
The man who couldn’t fit his mask on in time plunges at Owen, ‘guttering, choking, drowning.’ The onomatopoeia also brings the poem to life and enhances the actual horrific realities of war. Finally, in stanza three, Owen explains the significance of the incident. He addresses the reader directly by saying, ‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/ Behind the wagon that we flung him. This helps readers because they feel more involved in the poem through the use of second-person narrative voice, and it also helps us imagine the horrendous image Owen is trying to convey of war.
Owens’ diction in ‘Behind the wagon, we flung him in’ is also very meaningful. The soldier was ‘flung’ into the wagon, which means he was shown no respect or dignity; in the midst of the war, there was no time to mourn the fallen or help the wounded. Furthermore, the repetition of the face in lines nineteen and twenty clarifies which part disturbs the speaker most: the transformation in the face of the victim. Repugnant similes used in the third stanza such as ‘like a devil’s sick of sin,’ ‘Obscene as cancer’ and ‘bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’ makes one final attempt at portraying the reality of war, something which is far from honourable and sweet.
The simile ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’ is unimaginable because it is doubtful that the devil would ever become sick of sin. The only way, I think, is if there were too many deaths or too much hatred, which is coincidently, just like war. A sarcastic tone is adopted when Owen refers to Jessie Pope (the key audience of this poem) as his ‘friend.’ Their views and opinions are completely different. Pope is told by Owen that she would ‘not tell with such high zest/ The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori’ After all the gruesome images Owen saw throughout the war he couldn’t understand why anybody would tell their children ‘ardent for some desperate glory’ to go and participate in war.
In conclusion, I feel that Owen was successful in convincing readers that war was evil through his use of horrifying imagery. The imagery is associated with suffering, which aims to depict the truth about the war experience. I can, after reading this poem, imagine what war was like in the trenches because of Owens’s use of various poetic techniques which help to convey exactly what he thought about war. I feel I have no option but to agree with Owen that war is evil because I cannot imagine how, after reading a soldier’s poem that experienced war first hand, war can be exalted for.