Many of Wilfred Owen's poems, including "Dulce et Decorum Est," paint in stark images the brutality of war. Having fought in some of the bloodiest action of World War I, Owen wished to warn his English countrymen that the horrors of combat far outweigh its glory. He believed that those writers and politicians at home who championed the necessity of war did so only because they had not experienced its suffering--the suffering of the poem's dying soldier poisoned by mustard gas, his "white eyes writhing in his face," the blood "gargling" from his lungs. Such images were intended to make civilians experience the troops' fear and pain. Owen hoped that by displaying in such vivid terms the reality of war he might encourage others to let pity inform their patriotism.
"Dulce et Decorum Est," like much of Owen's work, relies on irony--a figure of speech in which the actual intent is expressed in words which carry the opposite meaning--to help convey its message about war. An example of this is title itself, from the Latin poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country"). Although patriotic and romantic depiction's of war run through British poetry of the Victorian period (see, for instance, Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade"), Owen hoped to direct poetry in a new direction. He shows us nothing "sweet" in a gas attack, nothing "fitting" or heroic about bootless, "blood-shod" soldiers marching "like old beggars" and "coughing like hags." Compared with war's absurd violence, Owen suggests, patriotism becomes an absurd matter: the poem never tells us what country the poisoned soldier is dying for.
Owen himself was killed in 1918, a week before the armistice that ended World War I. He had just returned to the front after recuperating from illness in a Scottish hospital. While in the hospital, he met and was encouraged by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who published much of Owen's work in a volume titled Poems in 1920. Today Owen is regarded as one of the finest war poets of the century.
In contrast with the title, which suggests that war, patriotic duty, and even death for one's country are "sweet and fitting," the poet shows us nothing noble about the wretched condition of the soldiers on their march. These troops appear far different than the ones the British people might have been used to reading about. They are "bent double" under the weight of their packs, but bent also, perhaps, under the weight of duty itself. Using simile--a figure of speech expressing the similarity between two seemingly unlike things--the speaker compares the troops to "old beggars" and "hags." The effect of the comparisons is to create a frightful, almost medieval atmosphere. Moreover, the comparison of the soldiers with "hags," or witches, creates the sense of the unnatural and introduces the possibility of some kind of evil at hand. The "haunting fires" reinforce this sense. Also notice, beginning the second line, the sequence of participles--"knock-kneed, coughing," etc.--that suggest the sounds and persistence of battle.
In the second line, the speaker defines his relationship to the situation: "we cursed through sludge." By identifying himself as one of the soldiers, he establishes the authority necessary to comment on the hardships he describes. In addition, he reminds us that war is not a far-away spectacle, not the heroic scene described by Tennyson in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but as real and as close to us as the speaker himself.
The speaker lists the soldiers' tribulations in short, direct phrases, varying at times from the dominant iambic meter to highlight certain details. A number of figurative uses are introduced here as well to demonstrate the suffering of the troops. They are "blood-shod"--a use of metaphor since it is an implied, rather than directly stated, comparison between the blood on the troops' feet and the boots they have "lost." Also note a similar use of hyperbole--a figure of speech based on exaggeration--when the speaker says the men are "deaf" to the cries of their comrades and that "all went lame; all blind." The troops are "drunk with fatigue"--an ironic echo of the "sweetness" in the title. Even the falling artillery shells, or "Five-Nines," are "tired" and "outstripped" by the grave nature of the men's fatigue. The images presented thus far create a somber, static, and miserable world, one in which the indignities the soldiers suffer seem as if they will go on indefinitely. This stasis, however, provides a grim contrast with the explosive violence of the second stanza.
A shift in voice brings on the sudden gas attack. In two sharp syllables someone--we cannot tell who--warns the men of a gas attack. We watch the men scramble for their gas masks in "an ecstasy of fumbling." Owen might intend irony in the use of the word "ecstasy," which can mean "a frenzy of exalted delight." Certainly the men should not be delighted about the attack. In an older sense of the word, however, Owen might simply mean that the soldiers have entered a state of emotion so intense that rational thought is obliterated. A third possibility is that Owen is suggesting a kind of mystical experience. As the men fight for their lives, they may feel the kind of religious ecstasy associated with near-death experiences. At any rate, one soldier fails to put his mask on in time and is poisoned by the gas.
In World War I both the allies and the Germans used mustard gas as a way of both attacking and striking fear into the enemy. If breathed without the protection of a mask, the gas quickly burns away the lining of the respiratory system. Thus the speaker compares the soldier with a man consumed in "fire or lime." Such a fate is not often compared with "drowning," yet the speaker knows that victims of mustard gas effectively drown in the blood from their own lung tissues. In addition, mustard gas has a particular hue--"as under a green sea." The speaker views the "flound'ring" man as if through an underwater mask, adding to the nightmarish and surreal atmosphere of the poem thus far.
In these two lines the incident is transformed to one that seems like a dream to an actual dream--a recurring vision or nightmare that the speaker cannot escape. In this dream the "guttering, choking" soldier "plunges" at the "helpless" speaker, seeking assistance. Although the speaker can do nothing for the man, there is still a feeling of responsibility and guilt. Perhaps many survivors of such attacks felt the same sense of guilt, wondering why they lived while their friends died.
In this last stanza the speaker directly addresses the reader--one who, presumably, is reading in the safety of England and who has not personally witnessed the type of horror just described. The speaker suggests that if the reader too were subject to such memories, they would "smother" the reader's conscience in the same way the mustard gas has suffocated the soldier. The images that follow depict the aftermath of the attack: the soldier's slow death, the "eyes writhing" in his face, the "blood come gargling from his lungs." Note among these descriptions the powerful use of alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds in closely related words. A good example of this can be found in lines 18 and 19: "wagon," watch," white," "writhing." The speaker combines this sound device with the most discomforting words he can conjure. The soldier's face is like "a devil's sick of sin"; his lungs are "corrupted" and "obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues" that suggest unseemly diseases.
If the reader--"my friend"--could see such horrors, the speaker insists, then his or her attitude toward war would change. The reader would not encourage war-like fervor, would not repeat patriotic slogans such as Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori, a saying which would have been familiar to Owen's contemporaries. In this part of the poem, the Latin phrase is used without irony: it is simply called a "Lie." Owen suggests that if the reader continue to spread that lie to young men prone to believing romantic sentiment, then those young men will likely receive a fate like that of the fallen soldier. Thus the final line is the shortest of the poem, bringing on the full effect of the three crucial words, Pro patria mori: to die for one's country.