Monday, August 1, 2011

Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen

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 marches 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 writing 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.

This may be my favorite anti-war poem of all time, because it excruciatingly, agonizingly details the human horrors of trench warfare in World War I.  There is a reason it was called the "Great War" because no one could imagine another war, not after all the horror and the massive human toll of the war.  Sadly mistaken as the world was, this poem's scathing account of the state of warfare in 1917 is as potent now as it was then. 

Owen is unsparing in his detail of the gassed man.  If you're alarmed, or disturbed, or put ill at ease by the description, then Owen has done his job.  I'm sure no amount of text could ever truly convey the horror of that scene, but as an approximation, it works.  Typing it out was very effective, as I could feel the harsh cadence of the lines, and reading it in my head, the harsh, contrasting consonants strengthened the imagery.  "Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs" is particularly effective, as the consonant attacks on "gargling" and "corrupted" add a harshness to the line that somewhat mimics coughing, in this case, coughing blood.  It's touches like these that make it essential to be mindful of the out loud, physical sound aspect of poetry.

The scathing hatred of the old "Lie" in this poem is what brings it all together for me.  Surely we've all heard, in one form or another, that there is some honor in fighting and dying for one's own country.  It is sweet and right to die for your country, we are told.  Owen rejects that, for with this new, modern war, there is no dignity in death.  The old Lie has become bankrupt for his generation, and he rejects it with all the hatred of an exploding bomb.

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