By reading these notes in addition to revising the notes you have taken in class, you will increase your knowledge of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est.’
National 5 English
The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914 sparked a crisis in Europe.
He was killed by Gavrilo Princip who was a member of the terrorist organisation the Black Hand. This organisation wanted to unite all Slav people which would mean the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Serbia was given an unreasonable ultimatum by Austria-Hungary and had only three weeks to accept all of the conditions.
When Serbia failed to accept all of the conditions of the ultimatum, war was declared. This triggered the complex alliance system which had been developed in Europe.
Germany tried to gain the upper hand in the war by implementing the Schlieffen Plan to quickly defeat the French Army. This strategy meant that Germany had to invade neutral Belgium and Luxembourg.
Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by the Treaty of London which had been signed by the United Kingdom. As such, Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914.
When the German advance was halted, a new stage of the war fought in trenches commenced. This war of attrition was to last until 1918.
World War I remains one of the largest scale wars in human history as it involved more than 70 million combatants (60 million of whom were from Europe).
9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were killed over the course of the conflict.
The United States of America entered the war in 1917.
As German resources became depleted, an armistice was agreed. The war ended on 11th November 1918 (four years, three months and two days after hostilities began).
Home by Christmas
Previous conflicts had been concluded very quickly. As such it was widely believed that the war would be over by Christmas.
The declaration of war was met with widespread enthusiasm. In the first month of the war, the strength of the British force was bolstered by 225,000 recruits.
Propaganda posters created the impression that the war provided the young men of Britain with an opportunity to enjoy a glorious adventure.
Atrocity propaganda suggested that German soldiers were raping and pillaging their way through Belgium and incited hatred towards Germany.
As the media did not report the horrors on the frontline, many were ignorant of the terrible conditions faced by soldiers and the humiliating defeats which were suffered by the British Army.
Nevertheless, recruitment steadily declined and in January 1916, conscription was introduced in Britain for the first time.
Born 18th March 1893.
Killed on 4th November 1918 (exactly one week before the end of the conflict).
He began to compose poetry exposing the realities of the war after being sent to recuperate from shell shock in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.
His poems, many of which were published posthumously, continue to be studied extensively as they offer a window into the horrendous conditions suffered by soldiers during the Great War.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’
The title of the poem is a shortening of the oft quoted Latin phrase ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ which can be translated as ‘it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.’ This title creates the expectation that the poem will be a celebration of war and the sacrifices made by soldiers.
Owen’s stark imagery immediately highlights the bleak realities of trench warfare. He describes a company of soldiers retreating from a battlefield. We are shocked by the description of their poor physical condition. Men who are in the prime of their youth are reduced to a condition similar more commonly associated with the elderly and the infirm. Rather than marching proudly, they are struggling to walk upright through mud. So accustomed are they to the noises of the war zone, they seem to be completely desensitised. They are in a state of mental exhaustion and do not hear a gas shell falling nearby. The soldiers have clearly been degraded and demoralised by the war.
The structure of the opening stanza mirrors the slow, staggering movements of the soldiers. It is heavily punctuated and this slows the pace.
Bent double1, like old beggars under sacks2,
Knock-kneed3, coughing like hags4, we cursed5 through sludge6,
But limped on, blood-shod11. All went lame; all blind12;
Drunk with fatigue13; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.14
In stanza two, the poet describes the panic of the soldiers as they realise that they are under attack. One man is unable to fit his gas mask with the necessary speed and exposed to the deadly effects of mustard gas. This death is shown to be slow and painful. It is apparent that soldiers are killed in the most inhumane ways and are forced to suffer greatly.
From the start of the stanza, a sudden alteration in the style of the poem successfully captures the panic-stricken state of the soldiers. A series of short exclamations highlights this panic and the short sentences mirror the hasty movements of the soldiers.
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light20,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.21
In only two lines, Owen effectively captures the psychological trauma faced by survivors. There is a shift in time from the opening two stanzas as the poet is now looking back on the attack. He is haunted by his memories of the death of his comrade and has to relive the experience in the form of a recurring nightmare. We also learn that he is plagued by guilt as he was unable to help in any way. This is evidence of survivor guilt which was common amongst those who survived the horrors of the trenches.
The power of these lines is aided by the structure of the poem. By including a short, two line stanza, Owen makes sure we pay attention to this content. We are left in no doubt that war causes mental scars which are never healed.
In all my dreams22before my helpless23 sight
He plunges24 at me, guttering25, choking26, drowning.27
In the final stanza, the poet directly addresses readers. We are asked to consider our own attitudes towards the atrocities of war and to confront the lies contained within pro-war propaganda. As Owen criticises the politicians and propagandists who promote war without knowing what it is really like, his tone is bitter and angry. It is clear that having read the poem, we should share his feelings. Owen returns to the title of the poem in a deeply ironic way to expose the deceitful nature of romantic portrayals of war.
Owen claims that if the promoters of the continuation of war could experience the suffering he has faced (which is only a fraction of the suffering faced by the dead soldier), they would quickly change their opinion.
If in some smothering28 dreams, you29 too could pace
While it is useful to memorise the entire poem, there are some quotations which will likely appear in any critical essay you write on the poem. Therefore, you must memorise these quotations as an absolute minimum and have a full understanding of why they are important.
‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’
‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’
‘In all my dreams before my helpless sight/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’
‘Behind the wagon that we flung him in’
‘Knock kneed, coughing like hags’
‘And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime…’
‘watch the white eyes writhing in his face’
‘Men marched asleep’
‘As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.’
‘Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’
‘Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots/ Of tired, outstripped Five Nines that dropped behind.
If you are asked to evaluate the poem in terms of the way it made you feel, a stanza by stanza approach will work well. Overall you would argue that we feel sympathy for the soldiers and anger towards the people responsible for starting and continuing the war.
-In stanza one, we are made to feel deep sympathy for the men as it is clear that they have suffered physically and emotionally. You would discuss the poet’s use of imagery in making it clear that the men have been robbed of their youth. The pace of the stanza mirrors the slow movements of the soldiers. It would also be worth noting the fact that the need to be constantly alert has drained them and has put their lives in danger.
-In stanza two, our sympathy increases as we learn that one man has failed to fit his gas mask on time. You would examine the poet’s imagery and word choice in making us feel deep sympathy for this person.
-In stanza three we are made to feel sorry for the poet who has been mentally scarred by the experience. You would discuss the effective use of emotive language in making us sympathetic.
-In stanza four we again feel sympathy for the dying man as he is treated as though he is disposable. It is made very apparent that his death is prolonged and undignified.
We also feel sympathy for the men as they have been misled by propaganda which falsely portrayed war as being a glorious adventure and a patriotic duty. This also incites our anger against the individuals who started and continued the war without knowing what it was really like for soldiers.
Questions in the exam about our emotional response to a poem can be worded in different ways. You may also be asked about a poem which made you feel a specific emotion (e.g pity or anger).
‘Dulce et Decorum Est is a poem with a very powerful message. It challenges readers to alter their perception of war by showing how barbaric and futile it is in reality. Answers to questions about the message of the poem should argue that it shows war in a negative light by highlighting the poor physical and mental conditions of soldiers as well as the inhumanity of the deaths many suffered.
You may also be asked to answer a question on a poem in which an incident or experience is vividly described. In such an essay you would focus on the effects of the gas attack, both on the soldier who died and on the observers who were plagued with survivor guilt.
Many readers may find that the poet has created an atmosphere which makes them feel despair about human existence. They may feel this way because:
Young men are let down by a society which has sent them into conditions which age them prematurely.
The description of the effects of the gas attack show that weapons conceived of and designed by human beings are used to cause intense pain and suffering.
Humans can be insensitive towards others when subjected to difficult conditions. This is evident in the lack of consideration shown to the dying man.
Individuals send fellow men into situations which can haunt them throughout the remainder of their lives.
People in positions of power are willing to exploit their authority to deceive men into thinking that fighting on behalf of a country is not only a patriotic obligation but a great adventure.
In the final exam, you will be directed to discuss relevant features of the text. For ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ you may wish to discuss:
From the outset of the poem, Owen uses similes, metaphors, alliteration and onomatopoeia to create a clear impression of the warzone he describes. For each of your chosen quotations, you should be aware of the use of any of these techniques and be able to comment on how they further your appreciation of the poem.
If words have been used to create a particular effect, your analysis of quotations should include a detailed explanation of why these words were chosen. This should involve identifying the connotations of the word and explaining what this adds to your understanding. For example, if the word ‘staggered’ were used instead of ‘walked’ you would comment on what this tells you about the movements of the person being described.
Make sure you are able to comment on the alteration in the pace of the poem between stanzas one and two and how this reflects the content.
-Warfare: In exploring warfare, Owen suggests that it is never-ending nightmare which demoralises and degrades healthy young men.
-Patriotism: It is clear that this theme will be explored as the title is a patriotic slogan. Our expectations that the poem will be a celebration of the glories of dying for one’s country are quickly subverted. Instead, we see that appeals to the patriotic spirit of young men are used to blind men to the realities they will face. Men are consumed by the desire to survive rather than a desire to secure glory for their country.
-Suffering: Suffering is explored in a way which shows that physical and psychological suffering are equally debilitating. While the pain experienced in the warzone is ended either by the culmination of the war or death, the mental trauma survives and grows as time progresses.
1 This powerful visual image immediately subverts the expectations created by the title. It is immediately clear that the men have suffered physically. They are unable to stand upright as they are weighed down by their kitbags.
2 Simile undermines the stereotypical image of soldiers as young and physically fit promoted by propaganda posters. ‘Beggars’ has connotations of being unhygienic, old and unhealthy. It is clear that the soldiers are filthy and weak.
3 Alliteration is used for emphasis. The harsh, staccato sound created matches the harsh tone of the opening lines. Knock- knees are associated with frailty in childhood. Therefore, the poor physical condition of the soldiers is again highlighted.
4 Simile again shows that the youth and masculinity of have been stripped away by the war. ‘Hag’ is a pejorative term used to describe an elderly woman who is physically repulsive. It is clear that the soldiers are unrecognisable and difficult to look upon.
5 Usually a word used to describe a way of speaking rather than a way of walking. Suggests that the terrain is very difficult and is extending the woes of the soldiers who are struggling to walk.
6 Onomatopoeia is used to draw our attention to the difficulties created by the heavy ground which cannot be crossed easily.
7 Personification is used to suggest that the men are haunted by death. It is a pervasive presence which they have difficulty escaping.
8 ‘Distant rest’ can be taken literally or seen as a reference to the number of men who will soon find permanent rest in death.
9 Word ‘trudge’ suggests that the energy needed to walk towards a place of rest is difficult to muster. This introduces the state of exhaustion the soldiers are in.
10 This metaphor continues the idea of extreme fatigue. Although alertness is essential in the war zone, the men are barely aware of what they are doing. They are now so accustomed to their routine that they are able to perform tasks mechanically.
11 The suffering of the men is made worse by the need to march barefooted on feet which are covered in mud and blood.
12 Repetition of the word ‘all’ emphasises the fact that every soldier is suffering. Pain and fatigue is a shared experience.
13 The men resemble people in a state of intoxication. They move forward in a staggering and uncoordinated way. This is the impact of their extreme exhaustion.
14 The men are so tired that they are oblivious to the onset of the gas attack. Their physical condition is shown to be potentially fatal as failure to react instantly to such an attack will result in death.
15 Capitalisation of the second warning cry indicates increased urgency. The warning is shouted to maximise the chances of it being effective.
16 Quick series of exclamations immediately establishes a change from the slow pace of the opening stanza.
17 Transferred epithet shows the desperation of the struggle to fit the masks in time. Panic has compromised the ability of the men to perform this task without fumbling.
18 Word choice has connotations of a fish thrashing around when taken out of water. The man is writhing about in agony as the gas takes effect.
19 Simile compares the soldier to a person who is ablaze and is burning alive. Fire also has connotations of hell and thus further underlines the terrible extent of his suffering.
20 We are forced to see this incident through the eyes of the poet. This makes the incident seem more immediate and is more emotive as it increases our sympathy for the dying man.
21 Extended metaphor of drowning captures the trouble the man has breathing as he slowly suffocates. As he chokes to death, he thrashes around in the way of a helpless drowning man.
22 The word ‘all’ is significant here. It highlights the fact that these nightmares are a daily occurrence and shows that physical escape from the warzone does not necessarily allow a mental escape.
23 This conveys a sense of guilt. He struggles to accept the fact that he could do nothing to help his friend.
24 Suggests desperation. His movements are lurching and uncoordinated.
25 Refers to a candle spitting as it goes out. Suggests the man is coughing and spluttering and symbolises the sudden extinguishing of a young man’s life.
26 Onomatopoeia imitates the soldier’s attempts to breathe.
27 A continuation of the extended metaphor from stanza two. This helps us to picture the man falling about as he desperately tries to draw breath.
28 Interesting word choice here is used to suggest that the nightmares slowly suffocate the survivor. Again highlights the lasting mental impact of war.
29 ‘You’ can be taken to mean both the reader and the people who have romanticised war.
30 Suggests funeral procession.
31 The panic of the soldier’s is so great that they are forced to treat the body of the dying man with no respect. Death has become so common that the dead and the dying are no longer treated deferentially. Soldiers are thus treated without respect as though they are disposable. This is perhaps a subtle condemnation of the officers who send men into battle without respect for the lives of individual soldiers. Instead, they are treated like cattle.
32 Alliteration here highlights hideous sight of the dying soldier as he succumbs to the deadly effects of the poisoned gas.
33 This simile is very ambiguous. In what sense is the devil sick? Physically? Or is because his needs have been more than met by the horrors which are a daily occurrence on the battlefield? Irrespective of our interpretation, it is clear that we should be appalled by a scenario in which suffering is so widespread that even the devil (the very incarnation of evil) regards it as unnatural. Hell is both close at hand and surpassed in the warzone.
34 Again highlights the lack of gentleness afforded to the dying man. Instead of being gently carried by stretcher bearers, he is carried in a cart which is going over the hard and difficult to navigate ground. This acts to increase his suffering.
35 Onomatopoeia draws attention to the horrible sounds made as the man loses his battle with the gas. While ‘gargling’ is usually a voluntary action, it is clear that the gas now has control.
36 Contrast (‘obscene’, ‘bitter’ ‘incurable’ versus ‘innocent’) contained within these similes shows that this fate is undeserved. Youth and innocence have been destroyed.
37 Can be taken to extend the direct address to the reader. However, it has been taken to represent a direct address to the children’s writer Jessie Pope. Pope’s poems glorified war in the way that Owen utterly despised.
38 Great enthusiasm as evident in the pro-war literature and posters.
39 Directly condemns the propagandised portrayal of war as an heroic adventure. The poet’s sympathy clearly lies with the mere ‘children’ who were misled and sent to hell by their apparent superiors.
40 The poem ends with a scathing critique of war. It is suggested that any person who has been subjected to the brutal reality of war would be unable to regard it as being heroic or patriotic.
41 Repetition of the title forces us to consider our attitudes to war in light of what we have learned about war in the poem.