Tag Archives: first world war

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Wilfred Owen)

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.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘1915’ by Robert Graves

I’ve watched the Seasons passing slow, so slow,
In the fields between La Bassée and Bethune;
Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,
Red poppy floods of June,
August, and yellowing Autumn, so
To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,
And you’ve been everything.

Dear, you’ve been everything that I most lack
In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,
Music, the quiet of an English wood,
Beautiful comrade-looks,
The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,
The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,
And Peace, and all that’s good.

I think this is such a touching poem. It describes a soldier living through the hell of trench warfare in the First World War, and holding on to “all that’s good” in the memory of a person that he loves.

This poem is to me remarkable because of its lack of obvious anger. A lot of the war poetry that I have read is very (justifiably) angry. This, however, is quiet, and sad, and wistful. The “Red poppy floods” bring to mind the senseless and copious bloodshed of the war, and the “Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow” and the “soul-deadening trenches” communicate the incredible hardships that the speaker has endured. But it is his dream — his memory of his loved one — that dominates and endures in this poem and that triumphs over his unspeakably hard reality.

There seems to me to be a beautiful simplicity in the images of the things the poet-soldier Graves most misses: “pictures, books,/ Music” and “the quiet of an English wood”. There is something almost innocent here. Why should a man who wants such simple things in life — who can derive contentment from “Peace, and all that’s good” — be sent to die in the trenches? He wants nothing to do with violence. I think the voice of the poet is so strong in this poem because he holds on to his humanity — his love of peace and good things — amid the diabolical circumstances into which the war has flung him.

This poem means a lot to me because it reminds me that our memories of love and peace can always save us, even in the darkest of hours.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh