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Dulce et Decorum Est

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.


Olivia’s lewd, but looks devout,
And scripture-proofs she throws about
When first you try to win her.
Pull your fob of guineas out,
See Jenny first, and never doubt
To find the saint a sinner.

Baxter by day is her delight:
No chocolate must come in sight
Before two morning chapters:
But lest the spleen should spoil her quite,
She takes a civil friend at night
To raise her holy raptures.

Thus oft we see a glowworm gay
At large her fiery tail display,
Encouraged by the dark;
And yet the sullen thing all day
Snug in the lonely thicket lay,
And hid the native spark.

–Elijah Fenton, 1707

COMMENTARY: I don’t think anybody teaches Elijah Fenton anymore, and several English professors I mentioned his name to had never heard of him. I only found this poem by chance leafing through Paul Fussell’s anthology English Augustan Poetry. During Fenton’s lifetime, though, he was fairly well-known. Or at least known by the right people. As schoolmaster at a small school in Kent, he was private tutor to the statesman William Trumbull. Though his literary output was small (a book of poems in 1707 and a biography of John Milton in 1725), he had the good fortune of living roughly next door to Alexander Pope. According to Samuel Johnson, Fenton’s poems impressed Pope who then asked him to help with his verse translation of The Odyssey. When Fenton died in 1730, Pope composed his epitaph calling him: “A poet blest beyond the poets fate/ Whom heav’n left sacred from the proud and great.”

Anyway, I like this poem for its lively control of its musical form, the wiliness of its euphemisms (especially the winking “civil friend” for lover) and the striking final metaphor. The “Jenny” in the fifth line likely refers to a waiting maid (at the time, Jenny was the “Jeeves” of maid names) who likely had some influence over her mistress. Baxter was Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian theologian, whose What Must We Do To Be Saved was a popular devotional in the early 18th century.

Victory Comes Late

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

–Emily Dickinson, 1861

COMMENTARY: Emily Dickinson is not often thought of as a “war poet.” Living in Amherst her entire life, never making it much father south than Philadelphia, she lived out her days in extreme physical isolation. Nevertheless, she would have read about the Civil War in the papers every day and, to someone of her imaginative depth, the war must have been a vivid reality. This poem, written just at the start of the Civil War, contrasts two images: someone (presumably a soldier) dying of frostbite just after a victory, and various birds gathering around “God’s table.”

The second image is an ironic allusion to several Biblical passages: the Phoenician woman’s saying to Jesus, “The dogs eat the crumbs falling from the master’s table,” the line from the sermon on the mount “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” and, from the same passage, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Dickinson’s treatment of these Biblical images is aloof and sardonic. It’s easy for God to keep “his oath to sparrows,” because they eat so little. They know how to starve. In making this point it is interesting how Dickinson starts with the smallest morsel and works her way up. Crumbs for “such little mouths,” cherries for robins and a golden breakfast for an eagle. The implication is that a man-sized hunger (and a hunger for things, like victory, that aren’t strictly physical) requires a God-sized largess. But this hunger, as in the case of the dying soldier for whom victory comes to late, is not satisfied by the drops and hints that fall from the “too economical” table of the world.

Of Man, By Nature

From God he’s a Back slider,
Of Ways, he loves the wider;
With Wickedness a Sider,
More Venom than a Spider.
In Sin he’s a Confider,
A Make-bate, and Divider;
Blind Reason is his Guider,
The Devil is his Rider.

–John Bunyan, 1686

COMMENTARY: Though John Bunyan is remembered mainly for his famous prose allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote poetry throughout his life and published a number of jaunty little collections. This poem is from his collection Country Rhymes For Children, a series of short moral poems often in the manner of object lessons. There are little meditations on frogs and hens and snails and tops with each used to teach a little homily, but, as the poems of other famous “morality” poets (Aesop, La Fontaine, etc) the punchline of the lesson is usually frolicsomeness of the language.

Grasse: The Olive Trees

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light
Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool
And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright
From too much wealth of water, so that the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And twisted trunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

–Richard Wilbur, 1948


Grasse is a commune in the south of France, just north of Cannes, which Wilbur likely visited when he was part of the force that liberated western Europe in World War II. Half quaint, half lavish (Grasse is known for its perfume factories), the commune features wild and cultivated olives, which, as anyone who’s seen them knows, are a gnarled, twisted, bitter-looking tree.

One of the themes that recurs in Wilbur’s poetry is the extent to the physical world is rich, intricate, and intoxicating, yet, at the same time, not enough. There’s always, mixed in with the “jammed excess,” a hint of something missing, a slight uncertainty, a pang or imperfection. The Grasse he paints is vivid and scenic–those rain-pocked stones, those flower smells, those statues–but the sweet excess is contradicted by the gaunt, famished, somber olives. More than botanical fact, their “great thirst” stands for the way the mind (spirit/soul) yearns for luxury but is never fully slaked by it–a paradox that hints that what it thirsts for isn’t in the the physical realm.

From “The Phoenix And The Turtle”

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”

–William Shakespeare, 1601

COMMENTARY: Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, so I thought I’d post a second consecutive poem of his. One of a handful of relatively “long” poems by Shakespeare, the Phoenix and the Turtle was commissioned as part of an anthology of sorts, centered around a long poem by Robert Chester, which addressed the theme of devoted love using the metaphor the (female) phoenix and the (male) turtledove. Published under the title Love’s Martyr, the anthology also includes poems by Ben Johnson and John Marston.

The section of the poem excerpted here is a eulogy for the lovers who, having burned in the phoenix’s fire, are now fully intermingled in death. The fire, of course, is partly figurative–the desire that feeds on its own fuel, and unites the partners so that “love in twain/ has the essence but in one/ two distincts, division none.”

The poem is remarkable for the muscularity of the music, the way the syntax fits so snugly into the narrow-shouldered rhymes. I also like the way Shakespeare plays with the idea of unity in partition, of numbers confounded. It’s like a sort of amorous dividing of the loaves and the fishes and then putting them together. Happy 453rd Shakespeare.

From Romeo and Juliet Act I Scene V

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this.
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: The move not while my prayers effect I take.

–WIlliam Shakespeare, 1595

COMMENTARY: Romeo and Juliet rhymes more than any other Shakespearian tragedy. From the sonnet prologue (“two households, both alike in dignity”) to the opening lines (“upon my word, we’ll not carry coals” / “nay for then we’d be colliers” / “An be in choler, then we’ll draw”) the language of the play, against the darkness of the story, shimmers with playfulness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “kissing scene” at the end of the first act. At the level of words, there is the lyrical punning of palmers (pilgrims who returned from the holy land with a frond) and palm of the hand–a pun that lies flush in the finger-clasped line of “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” At the level of structure is the way Shakespeare embeds a Petrarchan sonnet in the dialogue, dividing the 14 lines and six rhymes evenly between the two lovers.