Study Guide

Dulce et Decorum Est Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Wilfred Owen

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Disfiguration

Even before the shells drop and the world turns into a living nightmare, Owen concentrates on the ways that bodies get warped by the war. Emphasizing the ways in which men break under the stresses of war, our speaker creates a battle zone peopled by the walking dead.

  • Line 1: "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks" is a simile, which compares the men marching to beggars. Starting the poem off with an image of men "doubled" creates the possibility that the soldiers really have become two people: the men they were before the war and the creatures that they are now.
  • Line 2: More similes. This time the men are "Knock-kneed, coughing like hags." How do we know it's a simile? Well, it's a comparison that's created by using the word "like" to link the subject (the marching men) to another term (the hags).
  • Line 5: "Men marched asleep." Line five starts out with a stark image. People don't usually walk in their sleep, unless something is seriously wrong. Making abnormality the norm seems to be one of the major functions of this war.
  • Line 6: The parallel construction of the lines "All went lame; all blind;" emphasizes misery as a universal condition. No one escapes. No one.
  • Line 15: The speaker's reference to his "helpless sight" creates an almost paradoxical image: his sight works well. After all, he can see the image of the man dying – in fact, it's our speaker's all-to-active sight, which becomes the problem. What Owen is actually describing, however, is the helplessness of the speaker himself. If that's the case, then "sight" functions as a synecdoche, standing in for the speaker as a whole.
  • Line 18: The imagery created by describing "the white eyes writhing in [a soldier's] face" is horrendous. It's almost like the eyes have lives of their own: they've detached from the working of the body as a whole.
  • Lines 21-24: Owen is racking up some serious imagery points here. From gargling blood to cancer-like sores, we've got it all. This poem is a true house of horrors. We get to witness as a soldier's body breaks down entirely.

Allusion

Although we don't get too many allusions, the ones we do get are central to the message of the poem. In fact, we begin and end with a shout-out to one of the founding fathers of Western literature, Horace. Why? Well, that's a good question….

  • Line 2: The simile comparing soldiers to old hags has potential as an allusion as well. Think about it: literature is chock-full of nasty old hags. There's the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" and the witches of Macbeth. Even the old crone who helps the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves could probably fall into the "hag" category. Owen probably knew that his description would carry lots of cultural weight and used it to his advantage. Why compare soldiers to witches? Well, we'll leave that up to you.
  • Line 20: The devil's always a popular allusion in poems about bad stuff. Frankly, he's about as bad as it gets.
  • Lines 27-28: Ah, the biggie. This is the allusion to beat all allusions. It's one of the most-quoted lines of 20th century poetry…and Owen didn't even write it himself! Referring to a popular school text allows Owen to take a swing at all the popular rhetoric about the glories of war.

Nightmares

Just how "real" is this war scene that we're reading about? Well, that's a tricky question. For our speaker, it's too horrible to seem real at all. That's why we get so many descriptions of the battlefield as a bad dreamscape (you know, like one of those horrible night terrors that you had as a kid). The only difference is that you could wake up sweating and run to your parents. For this guy, the dream is the real deal.

  • Line 2: See our analysis in "Allusion" of the simile comparing hags to soldiers here. If hags are witches, then they fit pretty well into the whole nightmare vibe that's being created.
  • Line 2: Check out the alliteration in this line: the repeated "k" sounds begin to have an echoing quality, like the words that bounce around in a nightmarish fog.
  • Lines 13-14: The imagery of these lines is pretty intense. Murky green lights and all-encompassing fog? Sounds scary to us.
  • Lines 15-16: Here's where our speaker gets serious about his dreams. The image of the dying soldier becomes a literal nightmare, one which haunts the speaker for the rest of the poem.
  • Line 19: This line is all alliteration all the time. The "w"s in this line just keep stacking up.
  • Line 20: More sound play. Sibilance is the name of the game in this line: repeating "s" sounds create a sort of hissing on our tongues. Oh, and did we mention the allusion to the devil in this line? He's pretty nightmarish.