Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" Revealing Brutality of War

The First World War brought into focus that aspect of human existence which had acute lament for a major part of the 19’Th century---war and patriotism. War has a hoary heritage since mankind has taken a perverse pleasure in that burial activity which is celebrated in the name of patriotism. The heroism age heroism and heroic poetry of the ages past were based on only one kind of heroism that displayed in the warriors courage and achievement in battle. It is Horace who had most perfectly and memorably articulated the notion of war being a glorious opportunity to die for one’s country: “dulce et decorum est propatria mori” (odes lll.ii, 13) what is however amazing is that the beginning of the 20th century none voiced a protest against the technological innovations to invent weapons of greater mass destruction.

As late as in 1915, when the first world war had already begin, Robert Broke, the celebrated ‘old-style war poet’ declared that war is clean and cleansing, that it was a grand change from all the little emptiness of love (peace), and that cleats in war was the supreme honour for a noble young man. It was therefore left to Wilfred Owen, a poet as well as a soldier, to reveal the brutality of war, fact that it is something which not only destroys the physiques, but more significantly de-sensitizes the fillings and devastates the psyche. In contrast to Brooke he would reveal war to be inhuman rather than superhuman, indeed as an occasion for ‘superhuman inhumanities’, of ‘immemorial shames’ (spring offensive). 

Dulce et Decorum Est is perhaps his single most severe indictment of mankind foisting of war as a display of patriotism and of innate courage. The poem begins in a vivid manner which is starting or even shocking in its presentation of the seamy and noisome quality of war: ‘Bent Double, like old beggars under sacks’, soldiers are no longer resplendent princes glorying in that display of youthful enthusiasm but senile and poverty – stricken creatures who caught like hags and curse like the rabble they have to trudge through ‘Sludgs’, rather than march smartly to the true of military bands. The war had deprived them of all their vitality and sensibility, They were ‘lame’, ’blind’, ’drunk with fatigue’, and ‘deaf’ to all sounds except perhaps the sound of shells to which they had developed a mortal fear. Many of them were in such a woebegone state that they knew not when they had lost their shoes and limped on, their feet caked with blood.

But the inert soldiers are suddenly goaded into action with the realization that gas shells were falling among them, pouring out noxious fumes. The transformation is shocking as well as revealing. The frenzy of action reveals that war reduces human beings to a beastly struggle for survival; their fervid action has been inspired not by line desire to achieve something noble, not by a quest for personal glory, but by an animal instinct for life. One of them however does not succeed in putting his helmet in time, and this has disastrous consequences. The poet –speaker looks on as a soldier seems to drown before his very eyes, the image of the green sea suggesting the gasping effort to breathe while becoming gradually submerged, His helplessness to this sight would subsequently haunt him even in his dreams.

The attention shifts from the speaker to the reader in the third stanza. The hitherto remote and seemingly nonchant auditor is boldly addressed with the personal pronoun ‘you’, and brought into the vortex of the action. He is his death-throes; watch the wagon which carries the lungs. Once the reader has vicariously felt that which the soldier has already experienced, be would never again enthusiastically declare that it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country. He would realize that the Horatian statement was ‘the old lie’ perpetrated on generations of unsuspecting and foolishly innocent young men by war mongers.

Thus does Owen reveal the terrible truth behind the facile optimism about war and patriotism, what is however significant is that he does it not by dirty statement but by providing a briatlly realistic picture of war, so that the style and the subject matter are in perfect harmony.
  Ardhendu De