In the poem “Dolce et Decorum est”, Wilfred Owen relates an extremely powerful and intense episode of the First World War. As an English army officer, he experienced at first hand the harsh, inhuman and truly unbearable conditions this war imposed on the soldiers. He depicts in very crude, simple and powerful words the gruesome reality of the war: it kills indiscriminately, without warning, terrified men drunken with fatigue, prisoners of the dirt and sludge.
The poem is structured in 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph sets the scene: it describes a group of soldiers looking like beggars, bent in two from exhaustion, struggling to advance in the mud. They are trying to reach a camp away from the front line where they would be able to rest. The reader is drawn in this situation to the point where he can imagine himself being physically there. W. Owen uses simple words that express without the shadow of a doubt the “point of non return” reached by the soldiers. They are limping on, many of them without boots but with their bare feet shod in blood.
So exhausted are they that do not even hear the deadly poison gas shells dropping behind them.
The main action of the poem takes place in the second stanza. Owen goes straight to the point and does not use any unnecessary metaphors: simple but terrible words: “Gas! Gas!” A sense of panic reaches the reader as well as the soldiers struggling to put on their “clumsy helmets”, the gas masks. One soldier does not make it and breathes in the deadly gas. He dies a terrible death, described vividly by the poet to the point of bringing the reader to the verge of nausea. Struggling to get some air, chokes, drowns.
The horror continues in the third stanza where the reader is not spared the gruesome details of the soldier’s death: eyes writhing in their sockets, a bitter froth gargling out from his mouth, his face rendered devilish by the suffering he endures.
The tone of the poem is one of desperation, clearly evidencing the sense of abandonment of the soldiers, empty of any kind of hope and peace. The first stanza is very dark and slow. The second is a complete separation from the first one and is more active and eventful. The last stanza illustrates the full horror of a dirty war where chemical warfare and mustard gas were used.
In the first stanza the soldiers are described as zombies, walking slowly with extreme difficulty, following a path without thinking. Their minds are disturbed and no kind of rational reasoning is visible, while the bodies are highly exhausted, heavy and wounded. “cursed through sludge”, “Men marched asleep.” The sentences sound like heavy and wet boots clashing on the mud. At the end of the first stanza a deadly danger is announced but the soldiers do not react to this threat to their lives because they are so exhausted that do not hear anything. The second stanza sounds like a fire alarm, were the soldiers and the reader wake up from the slowness in order to save their lives. “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!” is a complete rupture with the previous tone of the poem. The exclamation marks and the repetition of short words make the poem acquire stress. This rapid change is radical for the reader and for the soldiers too. An image of un-coordination and disorganization arises. The third stanza is one long sentence, reflecting the idea portrayed in this stanza: horror, and total disgust at the tortured death of a soldier.
The war has tremendous effects on the soldiers. They are affected physically: their body shape is modified by the experience of warfare: “bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags” (lines 1-2). They seem tortured by the war. They have their backs bent, they are sick, with their knees bent towards each other. “All went lame”(line 6): the word ‘lame’ usually refers to animals and their inability to walk properly. Owen here compares the soldiers to animals as their state is reduced to a primitive state. The human senses are present in the poem; all the soldiers’ senses have been affected by warfare too. The sight of the soldiers is reduced to blindness (line 6). The men are “deaf even to the hoots of gas-shells dropping”. Introducing these elements in the poem allows the reader to put himself into the soldier’s position and truly understand his miserable condition. The writer emphasizes the effects of war on all the human senses. The soldiers’ body and mind change drastically towards a primitive state because of their experience of the war. They are reduced to an animal state. This reflects Owen’s idea about the war: it is not worth it, and it destroys humans and their ethics to be replaced by animals and instincts.
During the Gas attack the soldiers wake up in a frenzy to survive. Owen succeeds “fitting the clumsy helmets just in time”, but this is not the case of all the soldiers. One of the soldiers starts “yelling and stumbling and floundering like a man in fire or lime”. The air is so thick and full of gas that their masks are blurred, he isn’t able to see the scene properly: “Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, as under a green sea, I saw him drowning”. Owen compares the cloud of gas to a green sea. Those scenes clearly shocked Owen. It even comes back into his dreams: “in all my dreams” (line 15), “in some smothering dreams” (line 17). He is still haunted by the memory of the man dying in front of his “helpless sight”. This relates back to Owens’ life, his shell-shock and his difficulty to find sleep.
The last sentence completes the title of the poem, a quotation from the Latin poet Horace: “Dulce et Decorum est, Pro patria mori” which means: “It is fitting and honourable to die for your country” Owen makes his point very clear when he qualifies the quotation of a being a lie. He addresses the reader as a friend (line 25), who, if he had like them followed the wagon where the soldier lay dying, would never describe the war to young men ( “children”) as a fitting and honourable way to die for one’s country, because it is simply and bluntly, and old lie.