Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dulce et Decorum Est


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.

8 October 1917 - Wilfred Owen

It is an enduring truth that no one knows the price of war like those who have to fight them. The title, translated from Latin, means, “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and, of course, the author writes to show the lie of that statement.

In the first stanza, the "Five-nines" are 5.9 inch mortars which impact behind them as they march away from the front. In this scene the soldiers are too tired and spent to even care how close they are. Then they turn out to be gas rounds.
This poem startles with its ghastly imagery, to drive home its point. In the second stanza, the use of the word, "ecstacy" to describe the frantic fumbling with one's gas mask when under a chemical attack is spectacularly inappropriate. His description of a luckless soldier who didn't get his mask on fast enough is a direct challenge to all those who were propagandizing war in Britain at the time. There is no way this awful, squirming death scene could be described as glorious.

The author was a British soldier who was killed in World War I, then called the Great War. -PTR

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