Wilfred Owen, one of the great poets of World War 1, was born in England in 1893. He enlisted in 1915, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. By early 1917, he had undergone several traumatic experiences: “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.” He was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia, i.e. shell shock, and sent to Edinburgh for treatment. His doctor encouraged him to tell his experiences through poetry, especially those that came back to him in his dreams. He wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est” during that time.
The title of his poem is from Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which translates as “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” Owen initially dedicated “Dulce et Decorum Est” to Jessie Pope, a “civilian propagandist” who urged young men to go to war lest they be considered cowards.
In July, 1918, Owen chose to return to war in France, seeing it as his duty to relay the reality of the horror of war. He was killed in action on November, 4 1918, a week before the war ended with signing of the Armistice.
“Dulce et Decorum Est”
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 I 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.
Following are two readings of the poem. The first is by Christopher Eccleston, for the series “Remembering World War 1”:
The second reading has actual footage from the Battle of the Somme. Be forewarned, this one is very painful to watch:
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Text of poem – http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1914warpoets.html
About the poem – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulce_et_decorum_est_pro_patria_mori
About Wilfred Owen – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Owen
A version of this post was previously published on Joy of Fishes.