The alarming reality of the use of gas as a weapon of war contributed to the deteriorating of the soldier’s state of mind. This issue is present in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. Owen describes a scene of a gas attack “as under a green sea I saw him drowning”. This simile explores the image of a solider falling to his death in a horrific way just like drowning in a ‘green sea’. This quote further demonstrates a personal experience as Owen can attest to the truth and horror of it, and the part that tortures him the most is that he is unable to assist as he just “saw him”. Repetition and punctuation emphasises the issue. “Gas! Gas! Quick Boys!” is the physical focus of the poem, and the repetition marks the immediacy of the tone to enable the audience to understand and engage more into the reality of the soldier’s situation. Owen also refers the soldiers as “boys”, and this reminds the audience of the soldiers age and the dangerous and unpredictable circumstances the ‘boys’ find themselves in. The technique further helps the audience to be drawn into Owen’s world of poetry and understand that the soldiers were drained of their youth. As a result, the soldiers entry into the war at a young age as being a sign or an act of patriotism is nothing more than just an old lie of how sweet and fitting it is…to die for one’s country.
The disguising of the truth and the way nations perpetuate the optimism of war is a feature of “Dulce Et Decorum Est. Owen wants to reveal realities of war to both the people at the home front and the men being sent to war. Owen highlights this issue in the very last lines of the poem as he says “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro Partria Mori”. This is the lie that revolts Owen, which in translation means “it is sweet and noble to die for ones country”. This is the climax- the flawed justification Owen has exposed for the lie that it is. Owen uses oxymoron to support his view. “To children ardent for some desperate glory”. These ideas are designed to put the reader in some contemplation over what constitutes glory. The use of this technique further supports Owens attempt at highlighting the immoral ideas of propaganda throughout his poetry towards the glory and honour of dying for one’s nation.
The concept of massacre and waste of human life is present in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Owen describes this as “what passing bells for these who die as cattle?”. Owen uses this line as one of great passion, which represents how society sees these men; a block of sacrifice to die for their country and not as individual men. Owen uses alliteration to engage his audience. The alliterative “Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle” emphasises the sounds of war and gunfire as the men’s musical accompaniment to their death – this is their “Anthem” and Owen suggests that this is their only one. There is also a strong sense of pace in the words too, which emphasises that the men are carving up their lives too quickly. This issue of the waste of human life effectively engages Owen’s audience in understanding the reality of war. The uselessness and pointless reality of the moral and true meaning of war is indispensably obvious that it is not ‘sweet to die for one’s country”, but propaganda to gain nationalistic pride.
The brutality and viciousness of war is evident in “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. It highlights the distressing and horrific experiences of war. He describes the return of a dead solider in this way: “behind the wagon that we flung him in”. Owen’s aim to create an apathetic image as the wager recalls carcasses of meat suggests a callous and irreverent response to yet another death at the front line. It is a distressing image in an attempt to awaken the public’s awareness of the reality of war. Owen uses imagery to emphasise this issue. “Obscene as cancer bitter as the cud/of vile, incurable as sores on innocent tongues.” All this imagery is hideous and physically sickening as Owen wanted to provoke a response from his audience. It is astounding writing, but it is also accurate as it suggests disease but ironically the solider is beyond that – he is dying anyway. This quote is also suggestive of war for itself being a disease, supported by the sustained use of similes. This issue help Owen’s audience to visualise the disturbing and panic-stricken events the soldiers had endure without being emotionally attached otherwise their state of minds would disintegrate. Consequently the ideas raised by Owen allow the audience to ponder and reflect on the ineffectiveness of war resulting in human psychological post-war effects experienced at war. Therefore it is through the use of vivid imagery that one is able to see the futility of war and how the “old lie” is represented in Owen’s poetry.
The soldier being deceived by shameless men in charge is evident in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. The title suggests that Owen is writing a true recognition of the hardships and sacrifice. Although he makes the poem a parody in an attempt to wake up civilisation duped by the “lie” he also wants to give the soldiers their due praise for the horrors they experienced. Owen uses personification to highlight this issue. “And bugles calling them from sad shires”. A bugle is a traditional instrument used to call men to battle – the calling is beckoning and hopefully the men will return home. The men in charge are aware of the soldiers’ imminent death but continuously edge the soldier’s to fight by telling them it is patriotic to die for their country but really there is no pride in dying for your country as the men in charge lead the soldiers on their sacrificial journey. War is defined in the poem as futile with the only result coming from it is the denaturing of psychological consciousnesses or death.
The major theme of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is associated with its Latin title, which is taken from a work by the Roman poet Horace. The full phrase is ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, which can be loosely translated, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen consciously works to undermine this noble statement of patriotism by showing the ignominy of death in modern war. The men he describes in this war are anything but noble. Instead of confronting their foes in single combat, the soldiers in Owen’s poem are retreating from the front lines. They are tired, both physically and psychologically. They are almost deaf to the sounds of the falling gas bombs that could take their lives at any moment. The graphic realities of the battlefield did not match the glorious descriptions of war prevalent in the literature Owen and his educated officer comrades had read. There was no glory in dying from gas poisoning. What Owen seems to have realized is that death by gassing was a metaphor for all death in modern warfare; the notion of a glorious death was simply a lie. “Dulce et Decorum Est” graphically depicts a central irony of death on the modern battlefield: No matter how noble the cause may be, the individual soldier can expect nothing but misery in combat and an ignominious end should he be unfortunate enough to become a casualty. For the pity of war is clearly evident in expressing the perspective of World War I, as it is unquestionably bogus to believe war is noble and sweet to die for one’s nation.
Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” asks what burial rites will be offered for the soldiers who die on the battlefields of World War I and argues that, in place of a normal funeral, these men “who die as cattle” will receive, initially, a parody of funeral rites, enacted by the noise of guns, rifles, and “wailing shells,” and later the more authentic rites of mourning supplied by the enduring grief of family and friends at home. The scene might become simply gruesome and ugly, but Owen prevents this by focusing on the sounds of warfare in order to draw parallels between the rites of burial and the conditions of the front lines. Complicated patterns of sound in these first seven lines represent the noise and chaos of the front are evident in lines one and three which add an extra short syllable to the usual iambic pentameter, so that these lines end haltingly, stumbling to a close. The repetition of a stressed open vowel followed by the sound of the letter ‘n’ in line two mimics the steady, regular thundering of the heavy guns, for example “only,” “monstrous,” “anger,” and “guns”. While the repetition of a vowel followed by the sound of the letter ‘t’ in lines three and four, for instance “stuttering,” “rattle,” “patter” combined with the alliteration of “rifles’ rapid rattle” mimics the crack of gunfire. The fact that the iambic pentameter of line three is violated by both the dactyl of “Only the” and the trochee of “stutter-,” along with the aforementioned extra syllable that ends the line, means that the line literally stutters, imitating the irregular staccato of rifle fire up and down the trenches. The use of these aural imagery as well as onomatopoeia allows the reader to understand the effects of war and further oppose the idea of patriotism to war. These images that the audience illustrate mentally express a kind of scornful disdain for the instruments of death, however, the scene as a whole is one of chaos and horror in which the poet finds only the absence of dignity and comfort, an absence underscored by the repetition of the words “no” and “nor” in lines five and six.
Wilfred Owen successfully draws responders into the world of poetry by employing poetic techniques to create an appealing yet shocking image of war as a sadistic, unstoppable, untameable and unnaturally vindictive mechanical monster that kills without thought or reason for personal gain. This image presented throughout Owen’s anthology to attack all those who glorified and romanticised war. Owen’s pacifist sentiments echo through his poetry, however his anger at the woman, politicians and propagandists of his time is clearly evident in the profound imagery and the detailing of horrific deaths on the battlefields. Owens poetry serves as a warning to future generations to reconsider before they again believe it sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, because once the initial onslaught begins, all control is lost and it becomes near impossible to override the vigorous and pity war holds through it, in the belief of the patriotism of dying for one’s nation is nothing but an ‘old lie’.
By Roland Allam – 21677728
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