In honor of Memorial Day, I’ve chosen this poem for this week’s Poetry Sunday, a classic on the horrors of war written by the English soldier Wilfred Owen.
Owen was born in 1893 in Oswestry, England. His parents were evangelical Anglicans, and Owen himself was a devout believer when young. But, according to Joseph Parisi’s 100 Essential Modern Poets, he had an early crisis of faith: after studying religion, he found that “he could not reconcile Christianity with the findings of science”. He took a job teaching English in Bordeaux instead, and spent a year living with a French poet in the Pyrenees. Then, in 1915, he returned home and decided to enlist in the army.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Owen served on the front lines in World War I and saw fierce combat at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin. Although he escaped serious injury, he was severely traumatized and spent several months in summer 1917 recovering at a military hospital in Edinburgh. Most of his poetry was written during this period. He was discharged in November and spent several months in London, where he met literary lights like H.G. Wells and Robert Graves. He could have stayed out of the army indefinitely, but decided to reenlist in July 1918. Tragically, he was killed in battle on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice. He was only 25 years old.
Owen’s Poems was finally published, posthumously, in 1920. In sharp contrast to much other poetry of the day, which was largely jingoistic propaganda, Owen’s work drew a vivid picture of the horror and futility of war from a first-hand point of view. (Paradoxically, despite his hatred of bloodshed, he was by all accounts a valiant and respected soldier, and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action.) That attitude is powerfully expressed in today’s poem. The title comes from a famous line written by the Roman poet Horace, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which translates as, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.
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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.
Other posts in this series: