Owen starts out with some serious irony here. The title of his poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," is actually a reference to one of Horace's Odes. (By the way, Horace was a Roman philosopher and poet.) The translated version might look something like this: "It is sweet and proper." We get a fuller version of the title in the last stanza of the poem. (Check out our "Detailed Summary" for a reading of this longer version.)
Hmm…something's not right here. Can it really be "sweet and proper" for men to "march asleep?" Or for soldiers to march so long and fight so hard that they no longer resemble men at all? The "beggars" and "hags" of the first stanza sure don't seem like prime candidates for people that you'd want up on a national platform on Memorial Day.
Maybe that's Owen's point. Irony is a major mode for this poem. It's not proper and it's sure not sweet to become "bent double" and "knock-kneed" (1,2). And we haven't even begun to talk about what happens when gas shells begin to drop.
Owen grew up in Britain in the early twentieth century, when most schoolchildren got a good smattering of Latin in their education, especially if they went to parochial schools. Horace's Odes were frequently read by schoolchildren – a point that certainly doesn't escape our author's attention. Kids are taught that dying in battle is a brave and honorable thing to do. After all, that's how heroes are made, right?
In Owen's opinion, this couldn't be further from the truth. Emphasizing the gruesome details of his real experiences during the war allows him to demonstrate the emptiness of war. If schoolbooks teach us what heroes ought to do, his poem seeks to show us just how un-heroic wartime action can be.