Dulce et Decorum Est - Language, tone and structure
Language in Dulce et Decorum Est
Words suggesting exhaustion
In Dulce et Decorum Est Owen does not spare his reader any of the terror of the gas attack. In the first two lines of the poem, the soldiers, many of whom would still have been in their teens, are described as:
- ‘bent double’
- ‘knock kneed’
- cursing through ‘sludge’.
Even though the third and fourth lines might seem to be positive, the ‘rest’ towards which they ‘trudge’ is ‘distant’. These negative words counter any sense of hope and joy at the prospect of moving away from the front and the ‘haunting flares’.
The gas attack
Given how critical a gas attack was, it is chilling that Owen depicts soldiers ‘fumbling’ l.9 with their equipment. Most get their masks on only ‘just in time’ but a nameless ‘someone’ has succumbed to the attack and it is his sufferings which will dominate the rest of the poem, as he cries out, stumbles and struggles to breathe. It is he who will haunt Owen’s dreams as he ‘plunges’ at him, a word which carries threatening overtones, as if he is attacking Owen.
This nightmare scenario is heightened by words which gather in intensity: ‘guttering,’ ‘choking,’ and ‘drowning’ in l.16. The use of the word ‘guttering’ is particularly unsettling. A candle gutters as it goes out for lack of air, just as the man dies for lack of oxygen.
As Owen moves away from the gas attack, addressing his anger to those at home, he employs direct and powerful verbs. He suggests that, with such knowledge, those at home ‘would not tell’ lies to children ‘ardent’ for glory.
Owen uses contrast to intensify the horror experienced by soldiers and his audience. For example, in line 8 he takes the reader off guard: the lethal ‘gas-shells’ (or Five-Nines) drop ‘softly’, as gentle rain might, and are ‘behind’ rather than an overt danger in front. These words seem impotent and unthreatening, yet in line 9 Owen punctuates the first four short sharp words with exclamation marks. Like the troops we are shocked out of the somnambulant atmosphere of the first stanza. The shock of, ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’ is followed up by ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ l.9. Owen emphasises the panic by his use if the word ‘ecstasy’, often associated with love and passion but suggesting here extreme actions of a very different nature.
Owen’s use of repeated sounds picks up the alliteration of the title. ‘Dulce’ and ‘Decorum’ are the two contentious, abstract nouns meaning ‘sweet’ and ‘honourable’, which he revisits in the final lines of the poem. Joined as they are by the similar sounds of ‘et’ and ‘est’, they set a pattern for the alliteration which follows.
Each example emphasises the horror of the event:
- soldiers are ‘Bent’ like ‘beggars’ l.1, who ‘cough’ and ‘curse’. l.2
- the hum of the ‘m’ sounds of lines 5 and 6 sound like a grim lullaby -
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on .. All went lame
Owen’s use of alliteration builds as the pain worsens. In the ‘wagon’ l.18 Owen exhorts us to ‘watch the white eyes writhing l.19 (the last ‘w’ being an example of eye-rhyme rather than audible). Finally we are asked to envisage ‘vile incurable sores on innocent tongues’ l.24. This final alliteration underlines the startling contrast between the ‘incurable’ nature of the injury and the ‘innocence’ of the victim.
Owen also draws the reader’s attention to the key actions and themes of the poem by his use of repeated short, single words:
- ‘All’ is repeated twice in line 6 to ensure we are aware that no one escaped
- ‘Gas! GAS!’, capitalised on the second use, jolts us into the awareness of the terror and horror of the attack
- Lines 14 and 16 are end-stopped with ‘drowning.’, the finality of the word and its repeated use emphasising how impossible it is for Owen to forget the man’s suffering
- Similarly, the image of the man’s ‘face / His hanging face’ l.19-20 is impressed upon our memory by being repeated
- The repetition of the ‘If .. you’ construction at the start of lines 16 and 21 highlights Owen’s anger and direct (almost accusing) communication to his readers.
In stanza one of Dulce et Decorum Est Owen uses the past tense to describe the plodding retreat from the battle field, as the men ‘marched’ and ‘turned’ and ‘went’.
In stanza two Owen moves the action first into the present continuous, demonstrating the immediacy of action – the men are ‘fumbling’, ‘fitting’. Then he moves into the past continuous: someone ‘was yelling’ whom Owen ‘saw .. drowning.’ This indicates the passage of time, yet how the sight is still very real to Owen.
In stanza three Owen’s nightmares relive the scene in the present tense - as the man ‘plunges’ - and present continuous – the man keeps on ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ in an unending loop of action.
In stanza four the conditional verbs ‘If .. you could’, ‘If you could’, ‘you would not’ (l.17,21,25) challenge the reader / ‘My friend’ in the future to share Owen’s nightmare – and perhaps have the chance to avert it.
The tone of this poem is angry and critical. Owen’s own voice in this poem is bitter – perhaps partly fuelled by self-recrimination for the suffering he could do nothing to alleviate. Owen dwells on explicit details of horror and misery in order to maximise the impact he wishes to have on those who tell the ‘old Lie’. The way in which he addresses as ‘My friend’ those with whom he so strongly disagrees is ironic.
Investigating language and tone in Dulce et Decorum Est
- Verbs tell us about the action in a poem. List all the verbs which Owen uses in this poem and explore their impact on you the reader
- Nouns depict objects. Make a list of the common nouns Owen uses and see if you can pick out any patterns
Structure in Dulce et Decorum Est
The poem consists of four stanzas of various lengths. The first 14 lines can be read as a [3sonnet3) although they do not end with a rhyming couplet, and instead the ab ab rhyme-scheme carries on into the separate pair of lines which constitute the third stanza.
Whilst the initial fourteen lines depict the situation and the events which take place, the last fourteen lines show the consequences of what has happened and Owen’s reflection on it. The final four lines are his injunction to the reader to avert similar suffering in the future.
Stanza one is largely written using regular iambic pentameter, reflecting the relentless but, sadly, routine nature of the horror the men experience. However, the opening spondees of lines 1, 2 and 5 serve to arrest our attention, as does ‘blood-shod’ and ‘all blind’ in line 6.
The stumbling, lurching progress of the men through the ‘sludge’ is conveyed by Owen’s use of caesura in the middle of line 5-7. Then, for much of line 8, Owen reverses the metre to trochaic, subtly undermining the routine, just as the shells will disrupt the men’s trudge.
In stanza two the pentameter is disrupted by longer 11 syllable lines (l.9,11,14). The additional beat gives the sense of being out of time. The pace and punctuation also changes to reflect the panic of the men, particularly with the double spondees and emphatic punctuation of line 9.
In the short third stanza, the regularity of l.15 is overturned by the extra syllables and different metres of l.16 – as if the horrific sight is too overwhelming to be constrained by a regular poetic form.
For stanza four Owen uses additional beats to emphasise the particular horror of lines 20 and 24, echoing the pattern of stanza two. He resists making everything neat and orderly. He needs us, through the uncomfortable beat associated with the similes, to hear and feel the pain. By contrast, the hollow emptiness of the final line is illustrated by writing only a trimeter followed by white space.
The heaviness and misery of the men is reflected in the slightly dull and routine ab ab rhyme-scheme. The ‘udge’ sound in English is frequently associated with thickness and limited mobility (l.2,4) just as the ‘umble’ cluster connotes a lack of precision (l.9,11). The long ‘ing’ rhymes also have the effect of slow motion, replicating the horror of slow drowning.
In the fourth stanza, the grim images of ‘blood’ and ‘cud’ (the bitter tasting, regurgitated, half-digested pasture chewed by cattle) are emphasised both by their rhyme and their delayed position at the end of their respective lines (21 and 23). By rhyming ‘glory’( l.26) with ‘mori’ (Latin for ‘to die’) (l.28) Owen makes a point of contrast and irony from the two words which seem to be so much at odds with each other.
Investigating structure and versification in Dulce et Decorum Est
- Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of normal speech. Tap out the rhythm of each line with your fingers so that you can physically check the regular / irregular beats
- Now read out the poem with a friend with one of you reading the regular lines and the other reading the irregular lines
- How does this varied pace re-create the horror of the gas attack?
- Make a note of how Owen uses structure to move us through the poem.
The Book of Genesis shows God resting after the six days of creation. The Jewish sabbath was designated as a day of rest, following this example.
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
German 5.9 inch artillery shells.
The technical name for a verse, or a regular repeating unit of so many lines in a poem. Poetry can be stanzaic or non-stanzaic.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
Abstract nouns are used to refer to abstract entities such as ideas, emotions or concepts e.g. 'happiness', 'time', 'information'.
A pair of words or final syllables that are spelled similarly but which are in fact pronounced differently.
a line of verse where the sense ends at the end of the line
The form of a verb which indicates that the action happened in the past.
Verb form indicating continuous action now: for example: I am running, they are running
The form of a verb which indicates continuous action in the past.
The form of a verb which indicates that the action is happening now.
Verb tense where the chance of action is dependent on certain factors or conditions, often formed with the modal verbs ‘could’, ‘would’ and ‘might’.
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
A word that refers to a person, place or thing
Pairs of lines which rhyme with each other.
The device, frequently used at the ends of lines in poetry, where words with the same sound are paired, sometimes for contrast ' for example, 'breath' and 'death'.
A line containing five metrical feet each consisting of one stressed and one unstressed syllable.
A unit of metre, being a foot of two long, or stressed, syllables.
A pause, often indicated in text by a comma or full stop, during a line of blank verse.
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.
Use of a metric foot in a line of verse, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed. It is thus a falling metre.
An image where one thing is said to be 'as' or 'like' another: e.g. 'He jumped up like a jack-in-the-box'.
A line of verse of three feet or stresses.
To give rise to association
The boys are bent over like old beggars carrying sacks, and they curse and cough through the mud until the "haunting flares" tell them it is time to head toward their rest. As they march some men are asleep, others limp with bloody feet as they'd lost their boots. All are lame and blind, extremely tired and deaf to the shells falling behind them.
Suddenly there is gas, and the speaker calls, "Quick, boys!" There is fumbling as they try to put on their helmets in time. One soldier is still yelling and stumbling about as if he is on fire. Through the dim "thick green light" the speaker sees him fall like he is drowning.
The drowning man is in the speaker's dreams, always falling, choking.
The speaker says that if you could follow behind that wagon where the soldier's body was thrown, watching his eyes roll about in his head, see his face "like a devil's sick of sin", hear his voice gargling frothy blood at every bounce of the wagon, sounding as "obscene as cancer" and bitter as lingering sores on the tongue, then you, "my friend", would not say with such passion and conviction to children desirous of glory, "the old lie" of "Dulce et decorum est".
"Dulce et Decorum est" is without a doubt one of, if not the most, memorable and anthologized poems in Owen's oeuvre. Its vibrant imagery and searing tone make it an unforgettable excoriation of WWI, and it has found its way into both literature and history courses as a paragon of textual representation of the horrors of the battlefield. It was written in 1917 while Owen was at Craiglockhart, revised while he was at either Ripon or Scarborough in 1918, and published posthumously in 1920. One version was sent to Susan Owen, the poet's mother, with the inscription, "Here is a gas poem done yesterday (which is not private, but not final)." The poem paints a battlefield scene of soldiers trudging along only to be interrupted by poison gas. One soldier does not get his helmet on in time and is thrown on the back of the wagon where he coughs and sputters as he dies. The speaker bitterly and ironically refutes the message espoused by many that war is glorious and it is an honor to die for one's country.
The poem is a combination of two sonnets, although the spacing between the two is irregular. It resembles French ballad structure. The broken sonnet form and the irregularity reinforce the feeling of otherworldliness; in the first sonnet, Owen narrates the action in the present, while in the second he looks upon the scene, almost dazed, contemplative. The rhyme scheme is traditional, and each stanza features two quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter with several spondaic substitutions.
"Dulce" is a message of sorts to a poet and civilian propagandist, Jessie Pope, who had written several jingoistic and enthusiastic poems exhorting young men to join the war effort. She is the "friend" Owen mentions near the end of his poem. The first draft was dedicated to her, with a later revision being altered to "a certain Poetess". However, the final draft eliminated a specific reference to her, as Owen wanted his words to apply to a larger audience.
The title of the poem, which also appears in the last two lines, is Latin for, "It is sweet and right to die for one's country" - or, more informally, "it is an honor to die for one's country". The line derives from the Roman poet Horace's Ode 3.2. The phrase was commonly used during the WWI era, and thus would have resonated with Owen's readers. It was also inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst in 1913.
In the first stanza Owen is speaking in first person, putting himself with his fellow soldiers as they labor through the sludge of the battlefield. He depicts them as old men, as "beggars". They have lost the semblance of humanity and are reduced to ciphers. They are wearied to the bone and desensitized to all but their march. In the second stanza the action occurs – poisonous gas forces the soldiers to put their helmets on. Owen heightens the tension through the depiction of one unlucky soldier who could not complete this task in time - he ends up falling, "drowning" in gas. This is seen through "the misty panes and the thick green light", and, as the imagery suggests, the poet sees this in his dreams.
In the fourth stanza Owen takes a step back from the action and uses his poetic voice to bitterly and incisively criticize those who promulgate going to war as a glorious endeavor. He paints a vivid picture of the dying young soldier, taking pains to limn just how unnatural it is, "obscene as cancer". The dying man is an offense to innocence and purity – his face like a "devil's sick of sin". Owen then says that, if you knew what the reality of war was like, you would not go about telling children they should enlist. There is utterly no ambiguity in the poem, and thus it is emblematic of poetry critical of war.