A dead World War I hero’s poem deconstructs ‘glory’ of war

A dead World War I hero’s poem deconstructs ‘glory’ of war May 30, 2019
war poetry wilfred owen tragedy
Photo portrait of Wilfred Owen, 1918. (Allex Langié, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I have deep, abiding respect for warriors who courageously face the horrors of military combat to protect their nations.

At the same time, I could not possibly hate the idea of war more.

So, when people talk about war, I only listen to those who have been there. They are the only ones, to my mind, that have authority, indeed the responsibility, to speak.

Of immediate relevance is a powerful, transcendent poem I received recently from a friend, written by Wilfred Edwards Salter Owen, a gay British soldier-poet killed in France in 1918, the final year of World War I. He was 25.

One of Owen’s best-known poems — Dulce et decorum est (Sweet and graceful is) — is a terrifyingly sad, gut-wrenching memorial to the catastrophe that warfare inevitably inflicts on those who wage it for the governments that send them.

The last four devastating lines of the poem are:

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.

The final Latin words mean:

Sweet and graceful is

For our country to die.

Owen had been previously wounded in combat in 1917 and then sent to a war hospital in Scotland to recover from his physical and psychic wounds; he had also been diagnosed with the Great War’s equivalent of PTSD (post-traumatic shock syndrome): shell shock. He wrote Dulce et Decorum Est during his Scotland convalescence.

After returning to the front, he was killed on Nov. 4, 1918, trying to lead his men across a canal at Ors, France. His parents received the news a week later, on Armistice Day.

A review of Owen’s war poetry several years later read:

“Others have shown the disenchantment of war, have unlegended the roselight and romance of it, but none with such compassion for the disenchanted nor such sternly just and justly stern judgment on the idyllisers.”

An article about Owen’s life in the website Poets.org quotes the writer Geoff Dyer:

“To a nation stunned by grief, the prophetic lag of posthumous publication made it seem that Owen was speaking from the other side of the grave. Memorials were one sign of the shadow cast by the dead over England in the twenties; another was a surge of interest in spiritualism. Owen was the medium through which the missing spoke.”

Owen’s poem Dulce et decorum est is a work of timeless art that memorializes the tragic cost of human conflict in the massive scale and obliterating destructiveness of modern warfare. In the end, it is just people — mostly very young people — willing to sacrifice everything for an idea.

The full text, now in the public domain, is below. It reminds us that whereas war is sometimes unavoidable, we should move mountains to avoid it.

 

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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.

Image/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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