The year was 1917, just before the Third Battle of Ypres. Germany, in their bid to crush the British army, introduced yet another vicious and potentially lethal weapon of attack: mustard gas, differentiated from the other shells by their distinctive yellow markings. Although not the effective killing machine that chlorine gas (first used in 1915) and phosgene (invented by French chemists), mustard gas has stayed within the public consciousness as the most horrific weapon of the First World War. Once deployed mustard gas lingers for several days, and anyone who came in contact with mustard gas developed blisters and acute vomiting. It caused internal and external bleeding, and lethally-injured took as long as five weeks to die.
There was no draft in the First World War for British soldiers; it was an entirely voluntary occupation, but the British needed soldiers to fight in the war. Therefore, through a well-tuned propaganda machine of posters and poems, the British war supporters pushed young and easily influenced youths into signing up to fight for the glory of England. Several poets, among them Rupert Brook, who wrote the poem ‘The Soldier‘ (there is a corner of a foreign field/ that is forever England) used to write poetry to encourage the youth to sign up for the army, often without having any experience themselves! It was a practice that Wilfred Owen personally despised, and in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ he calls out these false poets and journalists who glorify war.
The poem takes place during a slow trudge to an unknown place, which is interrupted by a gas attack. The soldiers hurry to put on their masks, only one of their number is too slow and gets consumed by the gas. The final stanza interlocks a personal address to war journalist Jessie Pope with horrifying imagery of what happened to those who ingested an excessive amount of mustard gas.
Analysis of Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
British soldiers would trudge from trench to trench, seeping further into France in pursuit of German soldiers. It was often a miserable, wet walk, and it is on one of these voyages that the poem opens. Immediately, it minimizes the war to a few paltry, exhausted soldiers; although it rages in the background (’till on the haunting flares we turned our backs / and towards our distant rest began to trudge’). Owen uses heavy words to describe their movement – words like ‘trudge’, ‘limped’; the first stanza of the poem is a demonstration of pure exhaustion and mind-numbing misery.
The second stanza changes the pace rapidly. It opens with an exclamation – ‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!’ – and suddenly the soldiers are in ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’, groping for their helmets to prevent the gas from taking them over. Again, Owen uses language economically here: he uses words that express speed, hurry, and almost frantic demand for their helmets. However, one soldier does not manage to fit his helmet on in time. Owen sees him ‘flound’ring like a man in fire or lime’ through the thick-glassed pane of his gas mask.
For a brief two lines, Owen pulls back from the events happening throughout the poems to revisit his own psyche. He writes, ‘In all my dreams,/ before my helpless sight’, showing how these images live on with the soldiers, how these men are tortured by the events of war even after they have been removed from war. There is no evading or escaping war.
In the last paragraph, Owen condenses the poem to an almost claustrophobic pace: ‘if in some smothering dreams you too could pace’, and he goes into a very graphic, horrific description of the suffering that victims of mustard gas endured: ‘froth-corrupted lungs’,’ incurable sores’, ‘the white eyes writhing in his face’. Although the pace of the poem has slowed to a crawl, there is much happening in the description of the torment of the mustard gas victim, allowing for a contrast between the stillness of the background, and the animation of the mustard gas victim. This contrast highlights the description, making it far more grotesque.
Owen finishes the poem on a personal address to Jessie Pope: ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.’ Jessie Pope was a journalist who published, among others, books such as Jessie Pope’s War Poems and Simple Rhymes for Stirring Times. The Latin phrase is from Horace, and means, ‘it is sweet and right to die for your country’.
The earliest dated record of this poem is 8. October 1917. It was written in the ballad form of poetry – a very flowing, romantic poetical style, and by using it outside of convention, Owen accentuates the disturbing cadence of the narrative. It is a visceral poem, relying very strongly on the senses, and while it starts out embedded in the horror and in the narrative, by the final stanza, it has pulled back to give a fuller view of the events, thus fully showing the horror of the mustard gas attack.
While at Craiglockhart, Owen became the editor of the hospital magazine, The Hydra. Through it, he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon (read Sassoon’s poetry here), who later became his editor, and one of the most important impacts on his life and work. Owen wrote a number of his poems in Craiglockhart, with Sassoon’s advice.
After his death in 1918, aged 25, Sassoon would compile Owen’s poems, and publish them in a compilation in 1920.