Poetry Sunday: Dulce Et Decorum Est

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:

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Helen Hudspith

    Ah, could this be the best poem ever written in English? I think perhaps so.
    It simply covers every important issue out there, just as relevant today as when first written.
    For an excellent account of Owen’s wartime experience, his awakening talent and struggle to tell the truth with poetry, read the novel – or see the film -
    ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker.
    Just wonderful.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    Highly apposite – the BBC is on a poetry-fest at present:


  • Polly

    He could have stayed out of the army indefinitely, but decided to reenlist in July 1918.

    Mind-boggling. Possibly the stupidest, most wasteful war in the last 300 years and the same guy who wrote D&D REENLISTS?!?! WTF?!
    Nationalism was huge in those days in Europe. The only other -ism more blinding than religion because it feeds on our ancient, possibly instincitve tribalism.

  • ladyvonkulp

    Another great statement is the film ‘War Requiem’ from Derek Jarman (1989). Silent film, with the eponymous soundtrack from Benjamin Britten. Fabulous music, disturbing film, not surprisingly. And the music itself is one of the watersheds of the 20th century; I think I have six recordings of this mammoth work, including the premiere.

    I absolutely agree on the stupid and wasteful. It was a war fought with 19th century tactics and 20th century weapons.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    In reference to Polly’s comment, I had also wondered why Owen reenlisted. According to Wikipedia, it had to do with a desire to take the place of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, another anti-war poet and soldier who had been wounded:

    Sassoon, who had been shot in the head in a so-called friendly fire incident, was put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his patriotic duty to take Sassoon’s place at the front, that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. Sassoon was violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to “stab [him] in the leg” if he tried it. Aware of his attitude, Owen did not inform him of his action until he was once again in France.

  • Lynet

    One of Owen’s many strengths as a poet is that his poetry has that rare quality of making its author invisible. He allows what he sees to speak for itself, like a humble debater who eschews dramatic statements in favour of a simple presentation of evidence.

    In so many ways Owen strikes me as a meek, obedient type, sensitive to approval and disapproval. He wasn’t an iconoclast like Sassoon. He didn’t go around making far-fetched claims about the war being deliberately arranged by old men to kill young men. I think perhaps he would have preferred to be remembered as one who did not shrink to risk his life in war. It would have made his message more poignant, more pure, invulnerable to accusations of cowardice.

    I say this not because I think him particularly wise to have chosen as he did, merely because I understand. I can’t say for sure I would have had the courage to do the same, but I can understand the impulse.

  • Justin

    I’m fairly certain the poem in question was quoted in my high school history textbook; of course it helps to illustrate the horrendous conditions soldiers like Owen faced.

  • Alex Weaver

    This is quite poignant, especially since I’ve been thinking about World War I lately (one of my long-term semi-serious ambitions is to start a band, and I have some pretty good ideas for a concept album based on The Guns of August). Between the lyrical themes and the setting, I immediately thought of another work by an (apparent, though I’m having some trouble “officially” confirming that) atheist on the same subject and theme, albeit more modern. Adam, have you given any thought to including things like this in the series, or were you planning to stick more to what’s conventionally recognized as “poetry?”

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    This is one of my favorite poems too; it’s one of the most descriptive I’ve ever seen. There are passages in All Quiet On the Western Front that carry the same bitterness and accusation, but this captures the futility of war.

    An almost opposite hymn, written about the same time, is “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” which is so beautiful in tune and lyric yet so infuriating at the same time, with its theme of unquestioning sacrifice and the strong religious aspect.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Alex: I haven’t included any song lyrics in Poetry Sunday yet, but what is a song if not poetry set to music? I think I could be persuaded, if I found the right one.

  • Tim

    Perhaps more appropriate for this site would be an updated version of that same poem, ending in “Dulce et decorum est pro fides mori” – how sweet and noble it is to die for one’s faith.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    RE: song lyrics, how about Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” or John Lennon’s “Imagine”?