Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est has been called the best known poem of the first world war, and for good reason. The meaning of the poem presents itself clearly through gradually increasing intensity and violence with grisly diction, graphic imagery, and an ironic and often purposefully contradictory tone.
The diction Owen uses portrays the horror that each soldier was forced to endure and the exhaustion felt on the battlefield, the exact opposition of what is thought about war by the masses. “Bent double” (Owen 1) and “knock-kneed, coughing like hags” (2) conveys the aging effects war has on the young soldiers and the utter debilitation each man is subjected to, “drunk with fatigue” (7) though they are. Grim death is not ignored as a gas attack occurs and one unfortunate man is abandoned, unable to pull the life-saving mask over his doomed head, “guttering, choking, drowning” (16). Rather than averting from the repugnant obliteration of thousands of men on the battle front, Owen furiously buffets the mind with monstrous catastrophes which were viewed every day by soldiers.
The imagery in the poem is ghastly, as it should be. Each simile, “Flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” (12) and “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of skin” (20) produce the worst possible illustration of war. Owen paints the terrible picture of what war truly is, devoid of the sickening gloss spread over combat through the propaganda of people who “tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory” (25-26) of that which they know nothing about. Even the emphasis on his words portrays the terror soldiers feel. “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!” (9), fleeing from the enemy they cannot see. “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/obscene as cancer; bitter as the cud/ of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” (21-24) cultivates a myriad of gruesome reflections in the readers’ mind which are purposefully written in order to clout into the brain the despicability of warfare.
Close to every word in the poem is used to dispute the divine nature of heroism that clings to war and tries to prove the point that war is the antithesis of exaltation and praise. “Desperate glory” (L26), Owen writes, which is exactly what occurs after soldiers leave the front: desperation. No soldier remembers the medals of honor or the courage of men, and no soldier is unaffected by the ravages of battle. Every man who does not perish in the line of fire or the hail of gas and artillery leaves not as a man, but as a husk which cannot escape from behind enemy lines, mired in his mind by the sickening etchings of friends vanishing terribly and dying as quickly as flies ensnared in the web of a spider that will never miss. The irony and bitterness towards the subject of war is almost palpable as he concludes with the biting words “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori” (27-28).
The horror banally noted by everyone on the front is apparent on line after line of gruesome poetry, and the ease with which the soldiers endure each death and each abhorrent hemorrhage, each ghastly and gaping wound is obvious, termination quickly becoming as routine as breathing. The realistic rather than idealistic imagery, calculated, frightful diction and hateful, critical tone adroitly implemented in this poem each contribute to the point that warfare, panegyrized by those not directly involved, is not all that it seems, and is in fact squandering away the youth of entire nations.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” 29 June 2004. Poetry. http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Dulce.html