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Dulce et Decorum Est

May 30, 2017

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. 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.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

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,—
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.

–Wilfred Owen 1917

COMMENTARY: “Imaginative writing,” says the novelist Martin Amis, “is a war on cliches.” It wants to get to the truth of things behind the usual bland gab. This poem is a war on a particular cliche’: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” a line of Horace’s, “sweet and decorous it is to die for one’s country”–and the accompanying belief in a martial patriotism. It’s been remarked that this poem suffers from an overabundance of detail, violent and unpleasant, “white eyes writhing in the face/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” or “froth-corrupted lungs” or “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” This thick vehemence, however, is the whole point. Owen wants to lay on the language so gorily that the proverb in dead Latin seems all the more meaningless by comparison.

Interestingly enough, though Horace recommended a patriotic death to others, the story about him is that, during the Battle of Philipi, he went AWOL, leaving his shield behind—a deed for which he (arguably) deserves more honor than for writing that line.

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