If you're not familiar with Wilfred Owen, don't worry, Shmoop is here to help. Though you may not have heard of Owen, he set the tone for an entire generation of men and women writing and thinking about the events that just rocked the world – World War I.
Between 1914 and 1918, over nine million people died. Entire cities were razed to the ground. Nations crumbled, only to be re-formed amidst political turmoil and enough bad blood to launch another war (World War II, to be precise) a few short decades later. American troops joined the war in 1918, bringing with them the deadliest weapon yet: influenza. More people died of flu than war injuries.
Caught in a war that was waged primarily in trenches (big ditches that filled with mud, rats, and rainwater), Owen began to find it hard to justify all the suffering and death he witnessed. He was perfectly willing to sacrifice his life for king and country, but, like many other people, he'd like to make sure that his sacrifice was actually needed.
Increasingly convinced that the war seemed to be carrying on beyond the point of reason, Owen began to write poetry that emphasized the irony of his situation. He was in good company: as it turned out, lots of men (including Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae, and others) were feeling like their lives in the trenches were becoming farcical. Owen, however, managed to capture the division between the elevated language of nationalism and his reality, a world that suddenly seemed full of the blood of his nearest friends. Owen's experience rang true to a lot of the servicemen and women who contributed to the war efforts of the time.
Owen's gripping realism remains important today because, well, it's so real. When we read his poetry, we feel as though we're with him on the field, watching as men suffer in a frantic struggle to stay alive.
Let's face it, there are many people out there who write about war. In addition to the news, there are blogs, journals, memoirs, radio shows, and video games that commemorate, re-live, or even celebrate the action of the war zone.
After the press is done talking and the bloggers stop blogging, however, do we really know what it's like out there on battlefields? Unless you've been in through it yourself, or have a friend or family member in the Armed Forces, chances are you don't.
Well, that's where Owen comes in. See, soldiers in World War I may not have had the technology of today's troops, but they probably share similar fears and even similar pain. At first glance, this poem may seem vehemently anti-war – but it actually directs most of its bitterness at the people who rally around the troops without ever understanding exactly what they're sending those troops off to do. Owen spent years on the battlefields. By most standards, he has earned the right to call it like he sees it.
Reading "Dulce et Decorum Est" may not be a walk in the park. But Owen's struggling with a difficult issue: he's trying to get a country to pay attention to the fact that people are dying. Whether or not you support of a particular war (or even war in general), it might be a good idea to listen to what he has to say.