The poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ was written by Wilfred Owen and published during the war, shortly before he was killed in action. The poem itself is bitter and ironic, giving the message that war is unglamorous, and to think that it is something to rejoice in is to disregard those who have died in service. The title means ‘Sweet and fitting it is’, derived from the phrase ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’, meaning it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. However, Owen finishes his poem by saying that the phrase is a lie and only used to deceive young children desperate for glory. This gives a shock to the reader, as it turns the title of the poem into an ironic statement, mocking almost.
‘Peace’ by Rupert Brookes sends an entirely different message than Owen’s poem in that it projects war in a glamorous and almost religious light, as something that should be rejoiced in and participated in while we still have our youth. ‘Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, and caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping’ the opening of the poem is reminiscent of a prayer. The images in the first four lines, of religious calling, inspired youth, waking with restored strength and refreshed senses, and the swimmer turning (away from filthiness perhaps) and diving into clean water are images of baptism, which could mean that Brookes sees the war as a chance for a new beginning, perhaps for himself or for the whole world. His poem takes on the form of a sonnet, with a break between lines eight and nine. This break could symbolise a separation of themes or ideas within the poem, or the time gap from the start of the war to the end of it.
The first stanza of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ begins with the description of soldiers as ‘old beggars under sacks’ and compares them to old hags. This is not normally the type of imagery associated with soldiers, who are often described as vibrant, energetic and unstoppable in their goal to achieve peace. This message would have come as a shock to those at home, who had very little idea of the hardships of war, suffered only by soldiers who were unable to share their experiences with their friends and relatives simply because they could not find the words in which to put their encounters. The soldiers’ dejection in stanza one is due to the fact that they are in this war from start to finish and there is very little they can do to stop their own deaths. ‘Deaf even to the hoots of tired outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind’, the soldiers have accepted that if a shell falls on them then that is the end, and they seem not to care about this hazard as it cannot be prevented.
In the first half of Brookes’ sonnet, he refers to the people who have not volunteered to join the army as sick hearts and labels them as half-men in his personal attack against the unpatriotic among the British men. He feels that the war adds colour to an otherwise ‘Old cold and weary world’, and those who do not participate are not worthy to call themselves British. The second stanza is a celebration of how the war will end, either through one side winning, or through the soldiers own death. Death is portrayed as a soldiers friend as well as enemy, because nobody truly wants to die, however in death the ‘laughing heart finds its long peace’ with nothing to shake it.
The second stanza of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is an account of a gas raid given by Owen in the present tense to at a sense of reality to the situation so that the reader can empathise with Owen. The account is disturbing in that the description of a man dying is vivid in its simplicity, and the use of the word ecstasy slows down the pace and prolongs the effect of the images. The third stanza is composed of two lines only, but it is still separated from the rest of the poem, perhaps to symbolise the loneliness of a soldier who has survived an attack, but lost all his friends.
Owen also reveals that he dreams of the ordeal, so his experience is never truly over and keeps haunting him even when he is relatively safe. In the final stanza, Owen invites the reader to share in his experience, of watching a man die a most painful and unnecessarily prolonged death, describing every physical aspect that he observes. ‘If you could hear at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs’, he immerses the reader in his imagination and recollection of the event, giving us an insight into the painful and drawn out suffering that such a death may bring. Finally, Owen finishes with a blow to all the patriotic Britons who tell their children Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, by saying that it is an old lie, used as a blanket to cover up the injustices of war, turning the title of his poem into an ironic statement.
Both poets have differing views on the war, predominantly due to the time at which each poem was written. Brookes was killed before he was able to do his duty to his country, so he died with the impression of war being glamorous event forever branded to his name. He wrote without any fighting experience, which accounts for the absence of any remorse shown for lost lives, any grievance for lost friends. ‘Peace’ is typical of poems written prior to war experience, as it contains no remorse or hatred of war, and conveys the message that war is a method of escaping from everyday life, into an adventure where death is the worst thing that can happen to you.
However, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is quite the opposite, as it communicates to the reader that although they may have heard that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country, death is death no matter what the circumstances. In addition, people should be ashamed for disrespecting those who have given their lives by celebrating war and being excited at the prospect of Britain joining in a tempestuous struggle for life, which is seen as one big adventure. It is typical of post war poetry, or poetry written during the war, as it incorporates more than emotions, but experience, which can be extremely effective if conveyed in a way that catches the reader off guard, as is the case in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. ‘Gas! GAS! Quick boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling.’ The sudden change in tone and pace can shock the reader, which is what Owen has set out to do with this poem.
One aspect that both writers share is their gender. Being male, they tend not to concentrate on the way the war affects the women in their poetry, and instead they assert their expectations and experiences of the war. In the case of Brookes, we can see that he is clearly excited at the prospect of going to war, his hopes high and full of expectations of war being a colourful alternative to everyday life, rather akin to a young boy at the prospect of a holiday or adventure. Owen on the other hand takes up the role of the cynic, who has lived through the fighting and finds it difficult and disturbing to recount his experiences to us. His poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is a form of rebuke towards those who take the idea war in vain, and dishonour the dead by glamorising the loss of life.
To conclude, my opinion of both pieces of poetry is that I am able to empathise with each writer in turn, the emotions of the prospect of a war and the excitement of change, the experiences from fighting tirelessly and losing friends to an onslaught of death. I feel that both poems are typical of their time, but convey messages that people can truly identify with. Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori? Certainly. If you have not fought, that is.