Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
- Ah, now we get to the "you."
- Are we the audience to whom Owen addresses this poem?
- We're not quite sure.
- Several earlier versions of this poem were explicitly addressed to "Miss Pope," or Jessie Pope, a British propagandist who printed public letters urging men to take up arms in defense of their country's honor.
- Owen could be addressing the poem specifically to her.
- For the sake of argument, though, let's see what happens if our speaker's "you" is supposed to be us (the readers).
- If we accept that we're the people to whom our speaker addresses himself, something interesting happens: we're told that we can't understand what's going on in the poem…even as the speaker tells us what's going on.
- In fact, it's like a story that your friend might tell you. They might try to describe something that happened, but then end by saying, "you just had to be there."
- These lines actually take it a step further, though: our speaker doesn't even care whether we could actually experience the horrors of battle or not.
- He knows that we can't share those experiences with him.
- He's just wishing that we could share the dreams of the experiences of battle, but we can't do that.
- Such deliberate distancing of the speaker from the "you" of the poem creates a huge gap of isolation in which our speaker dwells.
- We just can't understand how horrible his life was…and is.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
- We're still in the land of hypotheticals here.
- Our speaker's going into detail, forcing "you" (or, well, us) to imagine just how horrible his dreams can be.
- The body of the dream-soldier writhes in surreal agony.
- It's almost over-the-top, unless, of course, you've read descriptions of the pain and suffering of gas victims.
- Notice all the "s" sounds stacking up in the last line? (For starters, there's "face" and "devil's" and "sick" and "sin.")
- When you read line 20 aloud, it's almost as if you're hissing your way through the line.
- The fancy technical term for repeating "s" sounds is sibilance…it's what snakes do.
- (And devils, if you take John Milton's word for it. Describing a devil by using an aural technique that forces the reader to hiss? That's pretty darn cool.)
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,–
- This is pretty disgusting.
- And that's our speaker's point.
- He wants to ram home just how absolutely degrading, humiliating, and surreal the destruction of the human body can be.
- Within minutes, the body of a young man turns into a mass of aging sores – almost as a version of cancer moved through his body at warp speed.
- Owen takes on a bitter, ceaseless realism towards the end of this stanza.
- His speaker is deep in the memory of his own dream – and he's dragging us along for the ride.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
- Now we get to the serious teeth of this poem: after drawing us deep into the hell of his personal experiences, our speaker lashes out at the those who helped get him into this mess.
- As he bitterly reflects, the war efforts begin at home.
- Lots of people are willing to convince young (and, he suggests, gullible) "children" that they can find glory on the battlefield.
- When you compare the heightened rhetoric or ("high zest") of these "patriots" to the stark realism of the lines preceding it, the difference between the two seems almost farcical.
- Owen sets up an implicit comparison between personal experience and national rhetoric.
- It's almost like we see two separate versions of war being fought: the one that's full of "glory" and "honor," and the other that breaks men in to "hags" and hallucinations.
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
- If you haven't buffed up on Latin lately, don't worry. Your friendly Shmoop translation team is here to help.
- These Latin lines are quoted from Horace (a Roman philosopher and poet).
- Here's the lines in English: "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."
- After reading all of the stuff that our speaker (and our speaker's comrade) have gone through, it's pretty hard to believe that Horace actually knows what he's talking about.
- We're guessing that that's Owen's point.
- Notice how the last line of the poem doesn't have anywhere close to ten syllables?
- For readers accustomed to seeing or hearing a line that's ten syllables long, this would sound like a huge, awkward silence.
- Maybe like the silence of death.