In both the poems “The Sentry”, and “Dulce et Decorum est”, Wilfred Owen create a strong impression of the suffering of the soldiers involved, both at the time of the incidents portrayed, and the time lapsed since those incidents.
Dulce et Decorum est tells the story of the death of one of Owen’s men in a gas attack. In the first stanza, the use of hyperbole is a strong technique illustrating the torment of the soldiers. For example, lines such as: “Men marched asleep.” And “All went lame, all blind” are blatant exaggerations, but subsequently convey the overwhelming nature of the soldiers’ exhaustion and pain. Consequently, I feel that the use of such ideas as “Men marched asleep” gives the impression of the soldiers’ psychological detachment from their own bodies – they have been subjected to so much stress and trauma that their minds no longer work in the same way as their bodies. This is a clear symptom of shell shock, and is evident in The Sentry also: “And splashing in the flood, deluging muck – / the sentry’s body; then his rifle”. The selection of the words “The sentry’s body” rather than simply “The sentry” gives the idea that the man’s body fell down the steps first, and that his mind may have followed later, as if he were in a trance, or were particularly panicked.
Owen also uses description based on animals: In Dulce et Decorum est, the soldiers are compared with horses: “But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame”. Words such as “den” and “herded” in The Sentry give the idea that the situation is below the most basic standards of civilisation. This shows the inhuman nature of war, and the way that this encourages the soldiers to act as if they are not human.
Whereas the first stanza of Dulce et Decorum est touches on several different senses: “All went lame, all blind”, “Deaf even to the hoots”, The Sentry centres closely around the loss of a soldier’s sight. These references to the senses increase the clarity and the effect of the imagery in both poems, showing the reader the unrelenting and inescapable torment of war, attacking all the senses, seemingly without end.
In addition to the suffering Owen describes at the time of the incidents in Dulce et Decorum est and The Sentry, he also creates a strong sense of long term mental suffering. This is built on the idea that these horrific but memorable events tormented Owen for the rest of his albeit short life. In Dulce et Decorum est, Owen mentions dreams in which he sees the dead soldier: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” This shows the longstanding mental suffering sustained by those who have witnessed such atrocities. This mental distress can be seen in The Sentry as well, “Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids / Watch my dreams still”.
The use of the specific speech of the sentry is also significant: “‘O sir, my eyes – I’m blind – I’m blind, I’m blind!'”, Owen seems to remember these words verbatim, as this implies that the voice and words of the sentry were so memorable and haunting that they are still in his mind. To further this technique, Owen uses personal pronouns carefully: “we” shows the narration of the events – the things that physically happen to the soldiers and their reactions to them. “We’d found and old Boche dug out”, “We dredged him up”, “we heard him shout” in The Sentry, and “Behind the wagon that we flung him in” and “we cursed through sludge” in Dulce et Decorum est. On the other hand, sentences that use “I” or “my” as a pronoun instead tend to show the most evocative feelings – Owen own clearest and most haunting memories of the incidents. “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning”, “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight”, “I held a flame against his lids”, and “I forgot him there”. This demonstrates how the mental suffering caused by the memory of such an event is prolonged and unrelenting.
I also feel that the mental torment suffered by the soldiers is demonstrated in the many references to the loss of hope, particularly in The Sentry: “We dredged him up, for killed” as well as the last line, “‘I see your lights!’ But ours had long died out”. One line in the last stanza of the sentry seems superficial, and too obvious in the context of the poem to actually be stated: “I try not to remember these things now.” However I feel that this line relates to the previous one: “And one who would have drowned himself for good.” It seems that this line evokes a particularly potent feeling of shame for Owen. I know that in his life before that war, Owen was a committed Christian and a lay preacher in his parish. This background provides a stark contrast with the person Owen is at war. I believe that this particular line represents Owen’s contemplation of suicide.
The “one” in “one who would have drowned himself for good” could well be Owen himself. Suicide is a very anti-Christian concept, and, given the historical context of the time, would not be something which was contemplated with ease. This highlights the horror of the situation, implying that it was enough to turn a man against God. Similarly in Dulce et Decorum est, Owen shows that the horror of war will change your core beliefs. The final stanza is set out as a hypothetical argument: “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we threw him in… My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / pro patria mori.” This shows the capacity of war to change a person’s perspective on life, and that someone who has not fought, simply cannot understand the truth of war. This supports the notion that the physical and psychological suffering undertaken in war is unspeakable, and changes the lives of those taking part.
Additionally, Owen develops a sophisticated rhyme scheme with intentional imperfections to eliminate any sense of ease and security. The juxtaposition of a line ending with an obscure a word as “squids” in amongst the conventional rhyme scheme of “light”/”right”, “there”/”air” and “scout”/”about” ensures that the progression of the poem feels uneasy and unpredictable, much as the soldiers would have done. This technique is almost a rebellion against the traditional Victorian poetry conventions of the time, which in itself helps to illustrate that Owen seems to feel that a new and different style of literature is necessary to represent an unprecedented and shocking period of history.
Owen’s description of the environment of war also contributes to this effect. The Sentry has a particularly strong atmosphere of claustrophobia and filth, as well as the imminent danger of the enemy. “What murk of air remained stank old, and sour” and “Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath – / through the dense din” “And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell / hammered on top, but never quite burst through.” The atmosphere in Dulce et Decorum est is less reliant on claustrophobia, instead the description centres around the fatigue and suffering of the soldiers. “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”: This is a more direct approach to the illustration of the soldier’s suffering, however both techniques are equally effective, and alongside the other Owen’s many other poetic devices, are successful in building up lasting images of the experiences of the soldiers and the conditions they endured.