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Dulce et Decorum Est: an Old Lie

By Edited Jan 6, 2014 1 2

Wilfred Owens Poetically Explains that it is Not Sweet or Fitting to Die for one's Country

Wilfred Owen's Poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is an argument that the story we tell of glorious battle is an "old lie."  Owen uses images of pain and suffering to tell the real story of war and explain that it is not sweet or fitting to die for one's country.  Repetition is also used to emphasize images and help convince his audience that if we saw what soldiers saw, we "would not tell with such a high zest. . ./The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria Mori."

The poem's first stanza begins to paint the picture that war is not sweet.  Words like "old beggars" and "knock-kneed" invoke a picture of old-age.  This image is continued by describing the soldiers as "lame: all blind."  This contradicts the traditional idea of victorious young met returning from battle healthy and in high spirits to show that war ages our soldiers.  The other descriptions in this stanza do not support an idea of high spirited soldiers either.  Much of the stanza refers to a desire to sleep.  It seems that the only thing the soldiers have to look forward to is their "distant rest."  Of all the negative images in the stanza, rest stands out as the only positive.  This emphasizes that war is full of tough moments with very few small pleasures.

The second stanza also has only one seemingly positive image.  The speaker refers to "an ecstasy of fumbling."  Normally ecstasy is associated with a frenzied and joyful excitement; however, in this context, it is a frenzied movement to find one's helmet.  For these men, there are no feelings of pleasure and excitement.  In telling glorified tales of war, we may use positive words like "ecstasy," but the speaker's use of the word defies the normal connotations of that word.  This discrepancy shows that he understands a different side of the war than those who tell tales may have seen.  It also emphasizes the lack of understanding that people who have not seen the horrors he speaks of have.  The audience sees only the positive connotations at first because that is expected from tales of glory in which a soldier dies a sweet death for his country.

The remaining images in this stanza are far from sweet.  They detail a very painful and gruesome death from a gas bomb.  The words used to describe his death do not fit into our image of a willing soldier who sees it as  an honor to die for his country.  The speaker describes him as  "stumbling, flound'ring like a man in for or lime. . ."  This is not a visual people want when telling of glorious battles and the heroes who died for their country. 

Repetition also begins in the second stanza.  Green is repeated twice in relation to the man's death.  He is seen through "thick green light,/As under a green sea, I saw him drowning."  This forces audience to focus on the gory details of the man's death, which looked like he was drowning in the green field.  The repetition of green emphasizes that his death is not sweet natural.  A natural sea is clear blue-green.  The idea of green sea leads to images of a dirty misty ocean.   Drowning is also repeated int he next stanza.  Again, this emphasizes the horrible circumstances of the death.  The speaker relates that he is unable to forge the image of the man "guttering, choking, and drowning."  The repetition of drowning also forces the audience to acknowledge that the haunting dreams are the result of witnessing the death of a a fellow soldier.

"Dreams" is repeated in the fourth stanza to begin to relate the poem to its audience.  This is where the argument really begins.  The speaker draws us in with "if in some smothering dreams you too could. . ." and begins to describe, in gruesome detail, the body of the fallen soldier.  Detailed phrases like "white eyes writhing in his face" continue to pull the audience away from the old lie of a sweet and fitting death by explaining in detail the rotting body and horrible death that may result when one dies for his country.

The final paragraph concludes the argument with the declaration that if the audience could see the horror of battle, they would stop telling the old lie.  "Zest" is out of place int he context of the poem; it is odd to be full of enjoyment for life when telling the story of death.  There are more pleasant images in this stanza than anywhere else, which shows how much different the stories told are from the truth.  The tellers of the old lie use positive images while the speaker uses pain filled imagery that doesn't leave anything out in an effort to truthfully explain the horrors of battle.  The speaker crafts a convincing argument through contradicting imagery and repetition to showthat the glorious battle tales tell a lie; it is really not sweet or fitting to die for one's country.

All quotes are from Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est."




Apr 5, 2011 12:18pm
A wonderful article explaining my favourite poem. Thank you so much for a really good read :)
Apr 5, 2011 5:16pm
Thanks for the comment! It is a great poem.
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