I’d originally planned on making this post in November, on the occasion of Veteran’s Day/Armistice Day, but with chemical weapons at the forefront of the news these days, this poem by Wilfred Owen–one of my all-time favorites, Dulce Et Decorum Est–kept percolating into my consciousness.
Owen was commissioned as an officer into the Manchester Regiment in 1916 and saw action–including gas attacks–on the front lines of the Western Front starting in January of 1917. Later that year, he was hospitalized with shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. It was there that he wrote some of his best known poems, including the one presented here. Owen returned to the Front in late 1918, and in October took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Joncourt, for which he later received the Military cross. He was killed on 4 November 1918 during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors, exactly one week before the Armistice. He was only 25, but he left us quite a legacy.
To explicate this poem is to diminish it. Its power is clear. The final seven words are from an Ode by the Roman poet, Horace, and translate roughly as “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”
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.
Trivia tidbit: 2013 marks the centennial of British composer Benjamin Britten‘s birth. His War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which was re-built after having been destroyed in a Nazi bombing raid during WW II. First performed in 1962, the work intersperses several of Owen’s poems, though not Dulce, among the Latin texts of a traditional Requiem Mass.
Extra-special bonus tidbit: Close friends and close readers of this blog know how much I revere the late Christopher Hitchens. Here he is, with that glorious voice of his, reciting Dulce Et Decorum Est: