Dulce et Decorum Est | Study Guide

Wilfred Owen

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Course Hero, "Dulce et Decorum Est Study Guide," December 20, 2019, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Dulce-et-Decorum-Est/.

Dulce et Decorum Est | Themes

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Horrors of War

An important theme of the poem is that war is full of horrors—a waking nightmare. The imagery of the poem covers the everyday suffering of soldiers in the trenches and ends with the extreme suffering of a man dying from chemical warfare. Stanza 1 captures the overwhelming exhaustion of the soldiers because of poor weather conditions, sickness, and a long march without sleep. The ground is "sludge" made muddy by rain, and some soldiers have lost their boots in the sludge and have had to march on bloody, bare feet. The soldiers are "coughing like hags." They are "drunk with fatigue" to the point that their senses are dulled.

However, the total exhaustion of Stanza 1 is only the beginning of the suffering the poem describes. War is not only grueling, it is of course violent. To illustrate, Wilfred Owen describes the gas attack in sensory detail. In Stanza 2 he describes seeing a soldier "flound'ring like a man in fire or lime" who appears to be drowning in a green sea—the cloud of poison gas. He goes on to say that when he dreams of this event, he sees the soldier "guttering, choking, drowning," with his "white eyes writhing in his face." He hears the blood bubbling up from the soldier's "froth-corrupted lungs." He calls the effects of the gas as "obscene as cancer" and "bitter as ... vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues."

Owen is known for his gritty depiction of the horrors of war and his realistic descriptions of life in the trenches of World War I. His experiences made him decidedly against the war. Though he returned to the fighting after the worst of his PTSD symptoms had resolved, he remained vocal in the stance he takes in this poem. War is shown as horrible, not glorious.

Lasting Effects of War Trauma

The poem is divided in two main parts. Stanzas 1–2 relate an experience as a past event. Then the final two stanzas describe and comment on the nightmares the speaker has about his experience. The experience itself has a nightmarish quality: With senses dulled, he and the soldiers in his company are suddenly and unexpectedly attacked, and one man is too slow to get his gas helmet on. The speaker sees the man succumb to the effects of the poison gas through the misty window of his helmet. Everything looks as if it is cast in dim green light, and the victim of the gas slowly drowns as if in the green waters of the sea.

But the dream of the experience is in some ways more terrible because it contains more of the speaker's emotional reaction. In the dreams the speaker feels helpless as he watches his fellow soldier die. He helps place the dying man in a wagon and must listen to his gurgling, bloody breathing. He rails against the "obscene" and "vile" kind of death the soldier died.

The lasting effects of war's trauma are twofold. One is that the person who experiences the trauma must live with its emotional effects. The speaker in this poem has some survivor's guilt as he recalls his helplessness at the soldier's death. In his dream the dying man "plunges" at him, but there is nothing he can do. The speaker also feels anger toward those who perpetuate war and who speak of war as something heroic or glorious. The second, and more troubling, effect of war is that the speaker is psychologically damaged as a result. He experiences recurring dreams in which he must relive the trauma again and again: "in all my dreams."

Owen, like many other soldiers, suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences in war. This poem vividly captures the sense of being trapped in the same terrible moment again and again, a common symptom of PTSD. As the nightmarish experience of the gas attack becomes a real—and recurring—nightmare, its effects are felt long after the speaker leaves the battlefield.

Lie of War's Glory

The title of the poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," is part of a quotation from Ode 3.2 of the Roman poet Horace, which is given in full in the final two lines of the poem: "Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." This line translates from the Latin to "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." The speaker responds to people who write poems that, like Horace's ode, glorify war to "children ardent for some desperate glory." He calls this glorification of heroic, patriotic death in battle the "old Lie"—with a capital L.

At its heart the poem is an argument against this glorification of war. It spells out the horrors of war and describes the lasting psychological and emotional impact of war—but all to support the main argument. War is not glorious; it is terrible. Dying for one's country is horrifying in the extreme, not "sweet" or "fitting." The final stanza includes an appeal to those who would perpetuate the "old Lie." It suggests that if those people were to see and experience what the speaker has seen and experienced, they would not be so quick to encourage young people to pursue glory in war.

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