Study Guide

Dulce et Decorum Est Quotes

By Wilfred Owen

  • Warfare

    "…deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind" (7-8).

    "Five-Nines" are gas shells, the dropping of which starts off the action of the rest of the poem. The fact that even the shells seem "tired" and "outstripped" suggests that the war might be dragging on too long.

    "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;" (9-10)

    The exclamations at the beginning of line 9 speed up the pace of the poem, bringing us into the action with all the drama that the soldiers themselves experience. The hyphen in the middle of the line reinforces this urgency, moving through the pause in the middle of the line as if it, too, is suddenly sped up.

    Men marched asleep. (5)

    War seems like a continual process in this line: even when the men are "sleeping," they're advancing or retreating from the field of battle. The image as a whole contributes to the ghost-like quality of the soldiers in this poem.

    "Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;" (5-6)

    The trench warfare of WWI caused lots of soldiers' legs to rot. Literally. Mired in mud and gore, the soldiers often had to spend hours (if not days) standing in trenches. The detailed description of how men come to be wounded is followed by sweeping statements about the condition of all soldiers.

    "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in," (17-18)

    Owen's phrasing here is intentionally vague: does the experience seem like a "smothering dream" to those who are living it, or would the reader have to enter into a dream-state in order to understand it?

  • Suffering

    "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge," (1-2)

    The bodies of the soldier are twisted and contorted, making their experience seem completely different from the sorts of marching that we usually see in military parades. Here they're like "beggars" and "hags" – cast-off elements of society.

    Men marched asleep. (5)

    Ok, maybe sleeping is the best thing that people can do in the midst of all this trudging through mud and bullets - but sleep deprivation can't be all that pleasant. Unfortunately, in this poem, it's the least of the speaker's worries.

    "Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind." (5-8)

    Words like "lame," "blind," "drunk" and "deaf" suggest that the soldiers have been stripped of their bodily integrity before they even enter into battle. They're almost zombie-men, stumbling through the dark with bodies that don't work anymore. And that's before the gas attack.

    "But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime..." (11-12)

    Lime, or quicklime, is a chemical compound that can burn through the human body (sort of like fire). Referring to death by fire or lime allows Owen to describe the horrors of gassing as both natural and unnatural suffering…it's like fire and lime-burns combined.

    "In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." (15-16)

    Because the trio of verbs in line 17 are gerunds (verb forms that end in –ing), we get the sense that the action is in the present tense. The speaker's comrade dies over and over in his dream, making the suffering of wartime casualties never-ending.

    "…the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;" (17-18)

    The man described here seems almost inhuman…as if the physical effects of gassing can transform his body into a version of hell on earth. His very face begins to melt off of him.

    "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,—" (21-24)

    The intense imagery of these lines emphasizes how unimaginable such horrors are for the civilian population. No one can understand how excruciating it is to die of gas poisoning, unless, of course, you're watching your comrades choke on their own blood.

  • Patriotism

    "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori
    ." (25-28)

    In this deeply ironic account of the efforts to get young men to enroll in the armed forces, the "zest" for patriotism and glory is undercut by all of the horrors that occur earlier in the poem. Owen's choice of the word "children" is an interesting one: it points to an innocence that will be lost forever once the "boys" step onto the battlefield.

    "Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori." (27-28)

    Read by schoolchildren throughout Britain, this excerpt from Horace's works can be translated as "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."

  • Versions of Reality

    "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge," (1-2)

    Using the word "like" to create two similes (the soldiers are "like" "old beggars" and "hags"), Owen suggests that their reality is so surreal that he needs to find comparative ways to describe it so that his readers can understand how gruesome his experience has been.

    "Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning." (13-14)

    The many veils between the speaker and the dying man create an otherworldly sense in these lines, almost as if the man is already in the underworld (or hell).

    "In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." (15-16)

    After the events narrated in the poem, the speaker's dreams are as real (if not more real) than his waking experiences. The war becomes a mental battle, one which doesn't stop wrecking his mind even after the official fighting has ceased.

    "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    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,—" (17-24)

    Starting this stanza with "if" allows the speaker to subtly point out the distance between himself and his readers. We don't have smothering dreams. We can't hear the dying soldier's gasping breath. When we read the poem, we only experience these scenes as conditional descriptions. "If" we could see them, we might understand – but for the speaker, that seems to be a pretty big "if."

    "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie:" (25-27)

    Referring to the reader (or his intended audience) as a "friend" seems like an ironic move on the speaker's part. After all, it's the enthusiastic ignorance of the "friends" participating in war efforts at home which got the speaker into this horrible mess in the first place.

    "…Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori
    ." (27-28)

    Why end with a quote in Latin? Well, for one thing, it's a direct quote from Horace. For another, it emphasizes the foreignness of such concepts as "patriotism" and "glory for one's country" on the battlefield. Once you get into the war, the speaker suggests, such words are nothing more than a dead language.