Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Analysis: Form and Meter
Pentameter (most of the time)
We're pretty sure that you've heard of pentameter before. Remember Shakespeare? He set a pretty decent trend. Iambic pentameter became one of the most popular meters for poetry of all time. "Dulce et Decorum Est" follows in a long trend. Well, yes and no.
Don't worry – we'll explain.
The quick and dirty version of pentameter is this: there are ten beats or five "feet" (groupings of two syllables) in each line. Sound out the first line of this poem aloud – you'll see what we mean.
Don't get too excited, though – "Dulce et Decorum Est" isn't your typical poem. In fact, it bucks the iambic pentameter trend. See, in iambic pentameter, every line should follow an unstressed/stressed syllable pattern. That's a complicated way of saying that when you speak the line, you're probably going to be emphasizing every other syllable. Here's an example from Shakespeare:
"When for/-ty win-/ters shall/ be-siege/ thy brow" (Sonnet 2.1)
Our poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," doesn't follow this pattern. It's almost as if Owen is pretending to be conventional, only to explode all notions of conventional poetry from the inside. Sort of like the shells exploding over our speaker's head.
Likewise, the stanzas of "Dulce" disintegrate as the horrors of war start to mess with our speaker's mind. The first stanza falls into a pretty neat eight-line pattern: the ABABCDCD rhyme scheme divides the stanza neatly in two. When we get to the second (and third) stanzas, however, things begin to fall apart. Stanza two seems like it should follow the pattern laid out by the first stanza –after all, it has an ABABCD rhyme scheme, as well. The change in the rhyming pattern mirrors the increasing horrors of war.
Those of you who are good with numbers, though, will notice that stanza 2 only has six lines. In fact, its rhyme scheme breaks abruptly off, only to be continued in stanza 3. It's almost as if the stanza splits into two separate stanzas. Looking closely at the language of the poem, we can see why: the "drowning" that our speaker witnesses completely messes with his mind. He's so fixated on it, in fact, that he uses the same word, "drowning" to rhyme the end of stanza 2 with the end of stanza 3.
Once we get to the fourth (and final) stanza of this poem, all hell breaks loose. Sure, we're still in pentameter, but we've got twelve (count them: twelve) lines to deal with. And the last lines sure aren't in pentameter. It's almost as if the form mimics our speaker's inability to get the war out of his head. The poem just can't stop where it should…if only because our speaker can't seem to get himself out of the atrocities of the battleground.