The poets and the World War: "Dulce et Decorum est" by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
16th January 1917. I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it….” (from: Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, H. Owen and S. Bell [Eds.], 1967).

As one of the leading poets of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s verses are perhaps to be expected here. No need thus to talk about Owen’s own life, poetry or literary legacy in relation to the emerging English Modernism. We rather suggest one of his most renowned poems Dulce et Decorum est. Entitled with the famous Horace’s Quotation (Odes, III.2,13) – almost a “manifesto” of some nationalistic propaganda from the classical Age up to now – the poem spares the reader none of the grim details of the trench life during WWI and lets so the patriotic rhetoric of this “old Lie” collapse in front of the physical and psychological suffering of the soldiers.

We may agree with Owen – or at least with large part of his readers – and regard his poetry as a “warn”, even as a “truthful information”. Yet, we are nowadays too disenchanted not to recognize, that past mistakes do not prevent those of the future. We may therefore remember, the purpose that Wilfred Owen always claimed for his poems is not so different from that he provides in his letters from the trenches, testifying so how the two genres sometimes overlap: both are a way to communicate standing “in front of”. In Owen’s poetry, standing “in front of” means primarily a soul-attitude to gain and save the indispensable distance to observe what happens, to catch the “reality” in the irreducible strangeness of “truth”, to recognize WWI beyond the rhetoric of glory, honor, might, majesty, domination or power. But standing “in front of” is not only the attitude of the writer towards the facts he observes, it is also the desire to communicate with someone else, a “standing in front” of a – imaginary – reader. Quoting Owen, poetry is thus also a form of communication between people, “poetry is in the pity”: it lives in the attempt to feel and fill the gap between the – incommunicable – personal experience and the – inaccessible – bare facts, as well as in the attempt to provide so a space of unperfected, i.e. purely human, communication, of enchanted taking care of differences, a space of pietas. No matter if we live almost a century later in a radically different world, no matter if this poem is “useless” insofar it does not provide us an answer or a warn. We still can read this poem as a letter addressed to us from another human being, who stands in front of “it”, of the Great War, but also – and that’s why good poems always speak – in front of us, the readers, even today


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.