Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori. These lines are drawn from one of Horace’s poems and mean that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. This is the image that people had of war before 1914. The shiny, bright uniforms; mounted men charging gloriously down to slay the enemy. Owen too had that vision of war, until he actually got there. His view changed dramatically after traumatic experiences: he was stuck in a shell hole for three days, and was then diagnosed with shell shock, a stress illness. When he was sent to hospital, he met the young poet Siegfried Sassoon, who influenced him in his poetry. It was then that he started to write anti-war and satirical poems. In Dulce et Decorum est, he shows the horrors of war, he forces us to watch the blood and death. He uses every aspect of the poem to illustrate the brutality and animality in war.
The first element one grasps is the rhythm. The entire poem is based on loose iambic pentameter. The first line starts off with a double stress: “Bent Double”. The effect is quite peculiar. Whilst the iambic pentameter suggests the exhaustion of the men, patrolling in no man’s land, its sometimes jerky rhythm feels like they are staggering “through sludge” and helps the reader immerse himself in the soldier’s body. The irregular beats are like heartbeats, stressed by gunfire and fright. The rhyme scheme is regular, but it affects the poem in a singular fashion. The rhymes are stressed every time by the Iambic pentameter, for that reason the poet places words which all have an important meaning and a violent sound at the end of each line, the “acks” rhyme for example. The caesuras emphasize the uneven character of the rhythm highlighting once more the weariness of war; picturing the struggling soldiers, limping like overloaded animals. The poet also manipulates the rhythm perfectly by controlling the speed at all times. For instance in the last two lines, there is a delayed action realisation, and, he speeds the rhythm up when the action happens.
In the next stanza the rhythm accelerates because of the “Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys!”. Owen uses direct speech, as if to address the reader. Then we are dragged through the text because of the hectic pace. The “ing” rhymes top it off as they quicken the rhythm. These rhymes sound as if they are dropping off the edge, and make the reader a visual spectator of a common war movie scene: alternating fast and slow motion.
The third stanza is like a pause. The first line is based on iambic pentameter, and gives a sense of slow heartbeats. Then the beats hasten, the sounds are cruder and the violent graphical images keep accumulating
In the last stanza, Owen uses the rhythm very carefully. The first word “if” is emphasized because he inverses syllables, by doing that he calls out the reader, forcing him to watch and concentrate on the violent images. The last important rhythmic element is the hammering in the last four lines. It clearly shows his rebuke and disapproval of war.
Owen uses in this poem very carefully chosen words and stylistic figures. Owen critics the dehumanisation of war, and pictures the poor soldiers struggling in this lunar-like landscape as old men who are “Bent double, like old beggars”. This is reinforced of course by the double beat in “Bent Double”. Owen also shocks the reader by exposing him to the soldiers fatigue and weariness, and thus completely destroys the romantic images of war. The poet dwells on the sense of crawling animals by using the word “Knock-Kneed”. Thanks to that assonance we can almost grasp the sound of the patrol advancing and bumping into each other.
His use of words like “plunge” conveys a sense of a sinking humanity. His regular use of m and l sounds conjures a view of the soldiers “fumbling” and creates once again a sense of weariness. It pictures soldiers who have not slept for days and who are no longer human; they are robots, they “marched asleep”. The apex of this horror is when some soldiers fling on of their companions into the “wagon”. They show no emotions, no respect, they are worn by fatigue. Owen also shows how the troops were torn out of their nightmarish walk and surrounded by gas bombs. How everyone, in “an ecstasy of fumbling” was forced to run out into the mist, unaware of his fate. Anyone wanting to fight in a war would become nervous at the image of himself running out into a blood bath. Owen frightens us, he wants to discourage young men to enrol into the army.
Owen also uses lots of vivid graphical images and powerful metaphors and similes to express the pain endured through war. The soldiers are “blood shod” because they have lost their boots. This metaphor is emphasized by the d assonance. Lines like “Coughing like hags”, “guttering, choking drowning”, “his eyes writhing in his face” or “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” are crude pictures of horror. This pain should be endured by no man and yet Owen exposes us to it. The poet also shows bitterness in this poem and uses alliteration like “cancer, bitter as the cud” or “devil’s sick of sin”(Here, Owen compares the victim’s face to the devil, seeming corrupted and baneful.). The poet uses impressive metaphors to completely crush the image of glory in war. Metaphors such as “as under a green sea, I saw him drowning”, create a sense of suffocation; it evokes for me an inferior form of life. The power of the poem could be summarised in its last lines. “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” He uses a capital L to show that this particular lie is well established and acknowledged.
Owen has a shocking visual power. He makes us reflect deeply on who we are and what we are capable of. The poem’s power resides also in the message it delivers: War is not glorious. It was an innovative thought at the time, as Wilfred Owen said “All a poet can do is warn”.