Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
and towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
but someone still was yelling out and stumbling
and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
as under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
behind the wagon that we flung him in,
and watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
his hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
- my friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory,
the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori.

For the title and last two lines of the poem, Wilfred Owen was inspired by Horace Odes III.ii.13: “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.” '

'Five-Nines' were gas shells.
Editor: Andrew Bell

Like many people, I suffered a sense of disquiet at the recent news of Osama Bin Laden’s death at the hands of US Navy Seals in Pakistan. Most people do not dispute that Bin Laden had masterminded some terrible atrocities, but the manner of his death and the scenes of jubilation on the streets of America only served to fuel a sense of unease that the victor had acting with no more morality than the victim. 

So I think Wilfred Owen’s poem serves as a timely and timeless reminder that acts of war are not glorious and that patriotism can be a dangerous tool in the hands of those with agendas to serve.

Wellington writer and academic, Harry Ricketts, has recently published an interesting book, Strange Meetings (Chatto & Windus), about the War Poets, reviewed here by Andrew Motion.

This week's editor is Andrew M. Bell, a poet from Otautahi/Christchurch who loves poetry, writing, his family and surfing, in no particular order. Recently, he has developed a new love for flushing toilets, unlumpy roads and stable ground.

For lots of other stimulating poems, check out the Tuesday Poets in the sidebar.

Note: The poem is in the public domain, and the two images are used according to the conditions of the Wilfred Owen collection, namely for educational, non-commercial purposes. 


Vespersparrow said...

Wilfred Owen's poem, once read, is impossible to forget. It is so graphic, so horribly real, so completely realized. This and "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" bookend, for me, his short life, and the irony of his dying on November 11, 1918.

It has been quite awful here, the jubilation, the warped sense of justice at Bin Laden's death.

Thank you for posting this poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

I studied this at school and I think it was one of the first poems that made me sit up and realise that poetry wasn't all daffodils, vagabonds and babbling brooks. Needless to say my juvenilia contains a number of anti-war poems.

Jennifer Compton said...

one of the very best - great to see the draft

lillyanne said...

I'm so glad you posted this - it deserves all the attention it continues to get, now almost 100 years after it was written. A truly great poem.

lucychili said...


Helen Rickerby said...

Thank you for posting this. It's such a powerful poem.

Helen Lowe said...

An oldie but a goodie, Andrew; also a favourite off mine from amongst the canon of the war poets. Thank you for posting, "lest we forget."