22. April 2013
English 340.001/Studies in Poetry
Dulce et Decorum Est
During World War I there were many advances in chemical warfare. The Allies and the Central Powers were introduced to tear gas, chlorine gas, mustard gas, and many more lethal chemicals. Chlorine gas is a powerful irritant that, in high concentrations and much exposure, can damage eyes, noses, throats, lungs, and even cause asphyxiation. Mustard gas was not always fatal, but it blistered skin, irritated eyes, and induced vomiting. It could cause internal and external bleeding, attack the bronchial tubes, and could take up to four or five weeks to kill its victim. Acclaimed poet Wilfred Owen was one of the soldiers to experience firsthand the horrors of gas attacks during World War I. In his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, Owen shares a specific experience as a soldier at the front line during World War I. He clearly states his disgusts towards the encouragement of young men to join the war, and that it isn’t an honor and the right thing to do. The realism of this poem portrays the death and repulsion; he makes readers feel as though they’re on the field with him, experiencing the same suffering and struggles to stay alive. In the earliest edition of this poem, Owen dedicated it to Jessie Pope, a patriotic English writer best known for propaganda during the first World War, who enthusiastically encouraged young men to join the war. He appears to be blaming the civilians who have never been to war for being the reason that it is still continuing. People like Pope, who see war as a glorious and necessary sacrifice for the country have never seen the true horrors; he challenges them that if they really knew how war looked, they may not be so fast to ship the young boys off. Through literary devices, Owen captures the message that fighting for one’s country is not as glorified and privileged as many make it out to be. Owen has organized the poem in three sections, each exposing a different stage of his war experience. The beginning of the poem depicts an active war scene on the front line. “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.” (lines 1-8) In the first two lines, Owen tries to show how crippled these soldiers are by comparing them to images his audience may be more familiar with. He uses similes to relate himself and his men to beggars and hags. They are bent over in pain, possibly even vomiting, due to the (mustard) gas bombs, as many beggars are seen to be unhealthy and crippled. Being knock-kneed suggests the men are unstable, almost unable to even walk anymore. By comparing themselves to hags and beggars, he instantly ages them, as most hags and beggars are older (or are typically depicted as older). The use of words with a hard “K” sound, such as “knock-kneed”, “coughing”, and “cursed” create a sharp, harsh sound right away in the poem. Throughout this stanza there is a repetition of an “L” hum, providing a calm, lulling sound, and with the sharp “K” sound. It strikes me as the popping sound of bullets or explosions to break the silence on the battlefield. In lines three and four, Owen explains that the men are on their way to their “distant rest” which has two interpretations—their actual camp that is away from the front lines, to recover from the fighting or it could be referring to their deaths, a death, that with the gasses, could take a long time to actually come. By the men turning their backs from the flares and bright lights of the artillery shells and heading towards the rest, it offers a sense of foreshadowing, that...
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