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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Teach "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen




May this poem written by Wilfred Owen be required reading in American high school English literature classes. The personal account, the historical reference, and the stark theme evidence the horror of warfare.

This simple piece of literature opens discussions about man's obsession with war and his attraction to violence. It distinguished  the value of "glory" from the reality of the nightmare of the supreme sacrifice. Through the account of a single casualty of war, Owen's poetic words prove unforgettable.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

By Wilfred Owen

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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.




The Poet and Soldier

Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England, in 1893. He discovered his poetic vocation in 1903 or 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. Owen was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical school, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which was to last throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the "big six" of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats.

Owen studied at the University of Reading. Because he could not afford to continue his education, he left school and worked as an English-language tutor in France while also writing poetry.

When World War I broke out, he did not rush to enlist -- and even considered the French army -- but eventually returned to England in 1915. There, he enlisted in the Artist's Rifles of the British army, received a commission, and shipped out to France in late December 1916.

Over the next several months, Owen wrote poetry to record his impressions of the war. Judging by his first letters to his mother from France, one might have anticipated that Owen would write poetry in the idealistic vein: “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France....” But by January 6, 1917, he wrote of the marching, “The awful state of the roads, and the enormous weight carried was too much for scores of men.”

On January 8, Owen and his troops had waded through two and a half miles of trenches with “a mean depth of two feet of water.” By January 9, he was housed in a hut where only seventy yards away a howitzer fired every minute day and night. And, on January 12, occurred the march and attack of poison gas he later reported in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” They had marched three miles over a shelled road and three more along a flooded trench, where those who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders, as well as some clothing and equipment, and move ahead on bleeding and freezing feet. There, under machine-gun fire and shelling by heavy explosives, the men were almost unconscious from fatigue when the poison-gas attack occurred.

Throughout April the battalion suffered incredible physical privations caused by the record-breaking cold and snow and by the heavy shelling. For four days and nights Owen and his men remained in an open field in the snow, with no support forces arriving to relieve them and with no chance to change wet, frozen clothes or to sleep: “I kept alive on brandy, the fear of death, and the glorious prospect of the cathedral town just below us, glittering with the morning.” 
 
In 1917, he fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out on an embankment in Savy Wood amongst (or so he thought) the remains of a fellow officer.

Soon after, Owen exhibited symptoms of shell shock after experiencing the hell of trench warfare. He also contracted trench fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by lice. His superiors returned him to Britain, where he underwent treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, then a suburb of Edinburgh and now part of the city.

While there, he continued to write most of his famous poems, including "Anthem For Doomed Youth," "Strange Meeting," and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” An experienced poet who was also receiving treatment, Siegrfied Sassoon (1886-1967), helped him edit and polish his work. Sassoon suggested that Owen should write in a more direct, colloquial style.

After his discharge from the hospital, Owen mingled with poets and wrote more poetry. His work by this time was showing great promise. Eventually, he returned to the army -- and to war.

In June,1918, Owen rejoined his regiment in Scarborough and in August, he returned to France.When he first returned to the battlefields of France, he seemed confident about his decision: “I shall be better able to cry my outcry, playing my part.” Once overseas, however, he wrote to Sassoon chiding him for having urged him to return to France, for having alleged that further exposure to combat would provide him with experience that he could transmute into poetry: “That is my consolation for feeling a fool,” he wrote on September 22, 1918.

In the last weeks of his life Owen seems to have coped with the stress of the heavy casualties among his battalion by “insensibility,” much like that of soldiers he forgives in his poem of the same title, but condemns among civilians:


I

"Happy are men who yet before they are killed

Can let their veins run cold.

Whom no compassion fleers

Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.



V

"We wise, who with a thought besmirch

Blood over all our soul,

How should we see our task

But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his."

 From "Insensibility" by Wilfred Owen

Owen wrote to Sassoon, after reading Counter-Attack , that Sassoon’s war poems frightened him more than the actual experience of holding a soldier shot through the head and having the man’s blood soak hot against his shoulder for a half hour. Two weeks before his death he wrote both to his mother and to Sassoon that his nerves were “in perfect order.”

But in the letter to Sassoon he explained, “I cannot say I suffered anything, having let my brain grow dull.... I shall feel anger again as soon as I dare, but now I must not. I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters. But one day I will write Deceased over many books.”

Owen rejoined his regiment in Scarborough, June 1918, and in August returned to France. - See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/305#sthash.AO3KnUfx.dpuf
Wilfred Own was killed on November 4 of that year (just one week before the war ended) while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre canal at Ors. He was 25 years old. The news reached his parents on November 11, the day of the Armistice. The collected Poems of Wilfred Owen appeared in December 1920, with an introduction by Sassoon, and he has since become one of the most admired poets of World War I.



The Historical and Societal Significance
It was at this time Owen wrote many of his most important poems, including "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est". His poetry often graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brook - See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/305#sthash.AO3KnUfx.dpuf
It was at this time Owen wrote many of his most important poems, including "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est". His poetry often graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brook - See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/305#sthash.AO3KnUfx.dpuf

The setting of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is a World War I French battlefield in 1817.
Trench warfare was the order of the day. Tremendous casualties from all parties were inflicted daily. and disease and other side effects suffered in war torn cities and villages were rampant

The First World War mangled lives, often doing so indiscriminately and without reason. The conflict forever changed the literary tradition of glorifying war, making it seem worthwhile, honorable, glorious, and romantic. The intensity of World War I trench warfare meant about 10% of the fighting soldiers were killed.

Technology had advanced much faster than the old tactics of the generals who fought the war. The machine gun, artillery ranges, and ammunition effectiveness were much better than in previous conflicts. To calculate the total losses caused by the war proved impossible. About 10 million dead and 20 million wounded is a conservative estimate. Starvation and epidemics raised the total in the immediate postwar years.

Trench warfare became a powerful symbol of the futility of war. Its image is of young men going "over the top" (over the parapet of the trench, to attack the enemy trench line) into a maelstrom of fire leading to near-certain death, typified by the first day of the Somme (July 1,  1916, on which the British suffered 57,000 casualties) or the grinding slaughter in the mud of Passchendaele (June to November, 1917, during which German casualties were 217,194). To the French, the equivalent is the attrition of the Battle of Verdun. (February to December 1916 during which they suffered 380,000 casualties)

Trench warfare is associated with needless slaughter in appalling conditions, combined with the view that brave men went to their deaths because of incompetent and narrow-minded commanders who failed to adapt to the new conditions of trench warfare: class-ridden and backward-looking generals put their faith in the attack, believing superior morale and dash would overcome the weapons and moral inferiority of the defender. The British and Empire troops on the Western Front are commonly referred to as "lions led by donkeys."

(Paddy Griffith. Battle Tactics of the Western 
Front – The British Army's Art of Attack 1916–18.1996)

The conditions under which men were made to live and to fight seemed the antithesis of what civilized existence was supposed to be. The ideas of the Romantic era about the beauty and wisdom of nature were being turned upside down with new inventions of mass destruction.


Gas Warfare

Chlorine was less effective as a weapon than the Germans had hoped, particularly as soon as simple counter-measures were introduced. Despite its limitations, however, chlorine was an effective psychological weapon—the sight of an oncoming cloud of the gas was a continual source of dread for the infantry. Within seconds of inhaling its vapor it destroyed the victim's respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks.

Phosgene, first used in December 1915, was the most lethal killing gas of World War I—it was 18 times more powerful than chlorine and much more difficult to detect. It caused about 85% of the 100,000 deaths caused by chemical weapons during World War I.

However, the most effective gas employed in the trenches was mustard gas, introduced by Germany in July 1917. Mustard gas was not as fatal as phosgene (also used), but it was hard to detect and lingered on the surface of the battlefield and so could inflict casualties over a long period. The burns it produced were so horrific that a casualty resulting from mustard gas exposure was unlikely to be fit to fight again. Only 2% of mustard gas casualties died, mainly from secondary infections. 

Literature since the time of the Ancient Greeks held the essence of dying for one's country was decorous or "dignified propriety in conduct, manners, appearance, and character. In fact, the word itself stems from the decor meaning "beauty, grace"; akin to Latin decēre meaning "to be fitting."

This view has been ingrained in Western thought since the time of writers such as Euripides and Aeschylus, the great tragedians of classical Athens. The ancient Greek hero was a religious figure, a dead person who received cult honors and who was expected in return to bring prosperity, especially in the form of fertility of plants (crops) and animals, to the community.

The Greek hero was a mortal expected to suffer during his lifetime, and, significantly, must die. Only after death could the hero receive immortalization in cult and in song. The hero of ancient Greece must struggle against his fear of death, in order to achieve the most perfect death.

Such a perfect moment would then  be recorded in song, or kleos. Kleos means "glory, fame, that which is heard"; or, "a poem or song that conveys glory, fame, that which is heard." Thus, kleos was used to refer to both the medium and the message of the glory of heroes. These honors were considered ongoing and never-ending. they were performed on a seasonally recurring basis, and those who participate in the worship believed that it would continue forever, thus providing a way for the hero to be immortalized.


The Poem

World War II confirmed that humanity had become “uncivilized” since for the first time in history. The inhumane nature of trench warfare as well the introduction of new deadly chemical weapons  contributed to the sense that large scale destruction was the foremost aim. Western Victorian notions of what it meant to civilized were proven to be an illusion.  Romantic and Victorian ideals were almost instantly shattered. It was horrifying for people to imagine that in such a “proper” society that men would be holed up in trenches, buried in the dirt and suffering from an number of filth-borne diseases.

(Nicole Smith. "Poetry Analysis of 'Dolce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen.
articlemyriad.com

In "Dulce Et Decorum Est," Owen blatantly rejects kleos and puts out a warning to others that may be prone to the same sort of disillusionment he suffered when he entered the war. One scholar puts it rather prosaically and aptly when he states, “From out of his death-world, Owen wrote a rebuke to the fathers that had wooed them, asked too much of them and then, apparently abandoned them.”

   (Knox. “A Few Deaths, Here and There.” Mortality 7.1 2002)

The title "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is an allusion that also serves as an ironic inversion and the concluding point toward which the structural irony of the poem moves. 

"Without it he is left with his horrific war imagery, which is point enough; with it he makes an additional point about the impotence of poetic tradition to speak truthfully of war.” The mocking tone of this poem makes the loss that it describes more poignantly bitter.

 (George V. Griffith. “Owen’s 'Dulce Et Decorum Est.'” Explicator 41.3 1983)

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is a line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes (III.2.13). The line can be roughly translated into English as: "It is sweet and fitting to die for your country." The patriotic line can be found in various sacred settings in America today:

* Inscribed at the front entrance to the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater at the Arlington National Cemetery.

* Carved in the monument commemorating the Battle of Wyoming (Pennsylvania) known as the Wyoming Massacre, 3 July 1778, erected 3 July 1878.

* Located on the second monument of the Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery in Point Lookout, MD, and at the Confederate Cemetery in the Manassas National Battlefield Park.



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 disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Reading the first stanza, one can literally envision the agony of the soldiers, "drunk with fatigue," trudging through the cursed "sludge" of the World War I battlefield -- their lack of sleep, their bootless feet, and their thousand-yard stares. The effective use of similes reinforces the imagery: "like old beggars under sacks" pictures the troops as prematurely aged youth lacking control of their fate while "knock-kneed, coughing like hags" illustrates their unhealthy condition.

All is used by the speaker as carefully chosen hyperbole. This word adds universality to the carnage of war, suggesting no one escapes its terrible costs.

The shells dropping behind the troops are personified as "disappointed" to emphasize their objective of death, a constant reminder of the closeness of fateful finality to which the soldiers have become shocked and deafened to the point of numbness. Some versions of the poem use the line "Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind." They seem to be unable to escape the ever-present horrors to find rejuvenation in rest. Instead, they resemble zombies resigned to the state of the living dead.
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19389#sthash.VPYakQYV.dpuf

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering 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.

As the second stanza begins so does a poison gas attack. The green color of the gas suggests it was a mixture of equal parts of phosgene and chlorine. The sleepy men are immediately awakened and panicked. In the first moments of warning -- GAS! -- troops begin clumsily finding and fitting their gas masks to avoid injury, but for at least one man visible to the speaker through his "misty panes," it is too late.

The graphic image of a man "stumbling and floundering" with his body on fire and drowning in "a green sea" dramatizes the victim's helpless condition, drowning in an ocean of deadly chemicals. Within seconds of inhaling its vapor it has begun destroying his respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks.

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

The next couplet portrays the panic of the dying man and the sounds of his painful expiration. The extended metaphor of drowning is reinforced as the victim "plunges," toward the speaker, attempting to find help escaping deep water. The speaker's "dream" and "helpless sight" introduce the idea that flashbacks of combat reoccur long after the actual grisly events, creating a lifetime filled with indelible terror and feelings of inadequacy.

The use of explicit verbs such as “guttering, choking, drowning” present the reader with an inarticulate reality of pain and suffering found in the blood-stained pits of war. The victim of indiscriminate gas and fate dies a horrible death.

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.

The main focus of Owens’ poem is that of one victim -- the man who has been asphyxiated by the gas. But, all of the soldiers are victims, not just of their foreign enemy, but of their own delusions of what war would be life. Ending the poem the poem in such a way has a great affect; the irony sinks in, and so does the final facet of Owen’s representation of World War 1: a rebuke to all poets who hail war as a glorious, antiseptic remedy to disputes.

In the last stanza, Owens speaks to the reader -- all of us, but one in particular he has read.

Owen is actually making a direct reference to a poet and civilian propagandist named Jessie Pope, who with her famous poem “Who’s For The Game,” exhort young men to join the war effort by comparing war to a sporting match. Owen reproaches her when he, after declaring it a "Lie," quotes the famous Latin words of Homer, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”.

Pope is the "friend" Owen mentions near the end of his poem. The first draft was dedicated to her, with a later revision being altered to "a certain Poetess" and the final draft eliminating a specific reference to her, as Owen wanted his words to apply to a larger audience.

(http://danielsenglishassignment.weebly.com/)


of a man "like a devil's sick of sin." The simile implies that even the devil, himself, is sickened of the carnage and man's atrocities of war.

The repetition of the word face makes it clear which element disturbs the speaker most: the transformation in the face of the victim. Even the sounds emitted from the lips of the dead soldier as at every jolt of the wagon sickens the spectator -- "the blood that comes gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs.

Such death, even in war, is "obscene as cancer." Owen makes it clear that war must be avoided and conflict is a carcinogenic, callous killer of mortals. "Bitter as the cud of vile" is language that serves to dehumanize beings to the status of animals suffering inflictions of "incurable sores on their innocent tongues."

The realistic rather than idealistic imagery, calculated, frightful diction and hateful, critical tone adroitly implemented in this poem each contribute to the point that warfare, glorified by those not directly involved, is not all that it seems, and is in fact squandering away the youth of entire nations -- the idealistic war that since antiquity has been marketed to their paradoxically juvenile audiences.

"The deaths Owens depicts are far from the ideas of heroes like Agamemnon or Achilles, far even from those represented in novels where the young gallant hero goes off to fight a war and never returns. The man that is the victim of the gas attack in Owen’s poem suffers like hell. There is no nobleness or glory in his death to a chemical substance."   

(Nicole Smith. "Poetry Analysis of 'Dolce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen.
articlemyriad.com

Owens directly informs the reader that for hundreds of centuries, societies have been utterly wrong and are in need of admonishing after their act of deception -- whether the deceptions were unwitting  or not.  Even survivors of war acquire images never to be erased from their minds -- these memories are the "vile, incurable sores."

Soldiers either die in a nightmare, or live with their bodies forever haunted, and their minds forever taunted. These sufferings and horrors of war should be shown clearly to youth to reveal the terrible, tragic truth about combat.


Direct Application

Roger Cohen of The New York Times reminds us that we have not learned the lessons of war. In 2012 as he gazed at the images of the faces of the more than 2,000 American service members killed since the war in Afghanistan began almost 11 years before, he found myself thinking of lines of Kipling: He cites the lines of Wilfred Owen in "Dulce Et Decorum Est" and states the following:

"No, in such circumstances, it is not “sweet and right to die for your country” — almost 11 years into an unwinnable war.

"Owen, of course, was writing about World War I. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, over 19,000 British troops were killed. Seen through the prism of the history of war, 2,000 dead in more than a decade is a paltry toll. As Dao and Lehren point out, more active-duty and reserve soldiers killed themselves last year than died in combat in Afghanistan.
 
"But this is scarcely consolation. We have sanitized war. It is kept at a distance, hardly more real than a video game. The shopping continues (although less of late). When a milestone is reached — 2,000 dead — attention flickers up.

"But otherwise the war seems far away unless you are from a military family. Pilotless drones do ever more of the killing. The thing about robotic warfare is you can watch Afghans get vaporized on a screen near Las Vegas and then drive home for dinner with the kids.

"The faces of the dead are a reproach to America — a reproach to its numbness, to its leadership over the past decade, its divisions, its obliviousness, its loss of community, its factionalism, its hypocrisy and its broken politics.

"They are a reproach to Europe — to the coddled allies who have not shared proportionately in the sacrifice. And they are a reproach to every one of us who has given far less and looked away."

(Roger Cohen. "Dulce Et Decorum Est." The New York Times. August 23, 2013)



Dulce et Decorum Est

  by Wilfred Owen
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.
- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19389#sthash.wrBCOLne.dpuf
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