Dulce Et Decorum Est -- A Literary Writer's Point of Viewby Mika Teachout
The Internet Writing Journal, September 1997
"Dulce Et Decorum Est"
A poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
History has taught us that no other war challenged existing conventions, morals, and ideals in the same way World War I did. World War I saw the mechanization of weapons (heavy artillery, tanks), the use of poison gas, the long stalemate on the Western Front, and trench warfare, all of which resulted in the massive loss of human life. "We must remember not only that the battle casualties of World War I were many times greater than those of World War II, wiping out virtually a whole generation of young men and shattering so many illusions and ideals; but also that people were wholly unprepared for the horrors of modern trench warfare. World War I broke out on a largely innocent world, a world that still associated warfare with glorious cavalry charges and the noble pursuit of heroic ideals" (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Edition, 1891).
A handful of poets, including Wilfred Owen, participated in the war, fought in the war, and some like Owen, died in the war. The poetry of these "war poets", as they are later termed, shows a first-hand account of the brutality and the devastation of war in a world which still believed that war was heroic and proud. Norton further tells us that
"those poets who were involved on the front, however romantically they may have felt about the war when they first joined up, soon realized its full horror, and this realization affected both their imaginations and their poetic techniques"(1890-91).In "Dulce Et Decorum Est", Wilfred Owen reacts to the war by turning conventional poetic technique into something that appears to be normal on the surface but in reality is tainted and corrupted. Owen's break from the conventional poetic form serves to symbolize the breakdown of society's value system - a system that had been trusted for many years. Owen also breaks from the pretty language prevalent in the poetry of his day to show his society the awful images of real and not romantically heroic war. Finally, Owen juxtaposes the idea of war as devastating and the idea of war as heroic to illustrate the poem's ultimate irony - "Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori"1.
Upon one's first consideration of Wilfred Owen's poem, "Dulce Et Decorum Est", the form it takes appears conventional. It rhymes well enough, following an ABAB, CDCD, etc. pattern and traveling in one 8-line stanza, one 6-line stanza, one 2-line stanza and one 12-line stanza. The number of lines and the rhyme scheme of Owen's poem echoes that of the French Ballade which consists of an ABABBCBC rhyme scheme repeated three times followed by a short 4 line BCBC Envoy at the end. Owen's stanza breaks are irregular and he does not separate the last four lines into the Envoy. However, a more significant formal feature of "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is the fact that Owen makes it look like a poem written in Iambic Pentameter. True Iambic Pentameter has 10 syllables and five stresses per line with the stress falling on the second syllable of each foot. An example of Iambic Pentameter comes from "Modern Love" by George Meredith.
Owen's poem adheres to 9, 10, or 11 syllables per line although there are a few lines which have less. Initially, the reader will point and say, "Oh, Iambic Pentameter". However, there is nothing poetically conventional about the stresses within each line. For example, take the first line. If one were to scan the poem, it would go something like:
The point is that hardly any line in the poem follows the iambic rhythm of de-Dum, de-Dum, de-Dum, de-Dum, de-Dum. Owen breaks up this iambic rhythm mainly with his use of punctuation. The punctuation (commas in the middle of lines, dashes, hyphens, exclamation points, periods) causes the poem to sound conversational when read. There is hardly any rhythm or music to the lines. Why should there be? Owen's war is not music, Owen's war is not a rhythmic dance. Owen's poem is full of stumbling, fumbling, tired, hopeless, dying men. He is writing about a ghastly scene of war and of a man drowning in poisonous gas. If there is music in Owen's poem, it is a dirge for the dying.
Owen's break from conventional poetic form can teach us a valuable lesson as writers. Owen obviously was aware of the existing poetic techniques of his day and prior to the war, he wrote in what Norton terms "sub-Keatsian luxuriance" (1909). Owen changed this form to prove a point and to change society's attitudes. It is important to note that Owen could never have changed poetic technique without first understanding what he was changing. We must remember that poetry, like painting, sculpture, dance, or music, is an art form. Any formal school established to study an art form teaches its students the history of the art form and the history of the technique of that art form. The school encourages its students to utilize past and present techniques and finally it gives its students the knowledge and the skills to use their own creativity to evolve or change what already exists. Poetry is a dynamic force. Poetry will always change and it will always evolve as long as there are new writers to write. But tradition and traditional forms must be respected and understood in order to change it. We have to remember, even if we have not studied poetry formally in an institution, that we are students of poetry, not only writers.
Putting aside any more discussion of different forms and operating under the idea that Poetry is an art form, I would like to point out that there is a misconception among a lot of people today that one can just write down a reaction or a feeling and call it poetry. Poetry is a reaction and it is a feeling, but reacting to something and feeling something doesn't necessarily create Poetry. Everyone reacts and everyone feels but not everyone can turn feelings and reactions into Poetry. It is ludicrous to say, however simply, "I am sad, so I will write about it and now I am a poet". Essentially we are saying that anyone can be a poet and anything written can be Poetry.
There are certain elements that should exist within any poem such as metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, imagery, etc. All of these things keep the poem focused on the subject and keeps the subject "tight". Tightness of imagery is an essential difference between a good poem and a great poem. When your image loosens, you lose your reader. When you keep your image tight, the reader stays with you. A poem can have more than one image, but the images must somehow work together. In "Dulce Et Decorum Est", Wilfred Owen does this brilliantly through the use of his reactionary language.
There are 4 main image groups which run all the way through the poem. The first is that of sleep or dreams. In fact, as Norton once again tells us, Owen suffered from "horrendous nightmares symptomatic of shell shock. The experience of battle, banished from his waking mind, erupted into his dreams and thence into poems..." (1909). Instances of this image are found in line 3-haunting, line 4-rest, line 5-"Men marched asleep", line 7-fatigue, line 9-"tired, outstripped Five-Nines", line 15-"In all my dreams", and line 17-"smothering dreams". The second image group is that of the sea or of someone drowning. These images can be found mainly in the second and third stanzas in line 12-flound'ring, line 13-"misty panes (portholes), line 13 "thick green light", line 14-"as under a green sea, I saw him drowning", line 16-"guttering, choking, drowning", and line 22 "gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs". The third image group is one of un-coordination. These are found in line 1-Bent-double, line 2-Knock-kneed, line 6-lame and limped, line 7-drunk, line 9-fumbling, line 10-clumsy, line 11-stumbling, and line 19-writhing. The fourth image group is one which shows lack or loss of the senses. These are found in line 3-"turned our backs" (blindness/ignorance), line 6-blind, line 7-deaf, and line 15-"helpless sight".
Owen also shows us a small group of images which are just ghastly pictures of war and occur largely in the last stanza. In any case, all of the specific image groups work together and throughout the poem to show us a vivid picture of war. These images are utilized by Owen to show the ultimate irony and the moral of the poem; it is not in fact a "sweet and meet" fate to die for one's country even though current writers of his day were touting it as something heroic. This irony is illustrated in a clever juxtaposition (another poetic technique) at the end of the poem. The men who enlist are "innocent" (line 24), they are "children" (line 26) who have learned that war is full of "high zest" (line 25) and this makes them "ardent for some desperate glory" (line 26). The innocents are willing to believe the Lie but they will, of course, learn differently once they experience the war first hand.
The reader's attention does not wander throughout the poem because of Owen's consistent imagery. By the end of the poem, the reader can fully appreciate the irony between the truth of what happens in the trenches and the Lie being told at home. It is this attention to form and imagery that makes the poem effective.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" is a reactionary poem. Owen reacts to a horrible war and to the Lie being told about war. He shows us his reaction through the changes he makes to poetic form illustrating the breakdown of an established system (after all, the poets who were touting the war were still sticking to form), and through the realism of his language.
Poets must react. Effective Poetry is usually a reaction to something experienced first hand by the author. Poets also must educate themselves in classic form and attempt to write in classic form. Whether success occurs while attempting classic form is another matter. The point is that we must appreciate the traditional past of the art form and we must utilize poetic device in any poem we try to write. A gut reaction, a respect for form, and a utilization of poetic devices go hand in hand in hand.
1 It is sweet and meet to die for one's country.
**Mika Teachout is a writer living and working in Chicago. She holds a Masters in English Literature from DePaul University. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org