Continuing the ongoing series of World War I poems from the collection titled, Some Desparate Glory: The First World Warthe Poets Knew edited by Max Egremont, I want to post what I consider the finest poem to come out of the First World War. Before I get to the poem, let me provide links to the previous poems of the series. Since Egremont organizes his book by year during the war, I have been posting on what I consider the most interesting poem of that year. Here are the poems and the links.
Now I had intended to only post one poem per poet so we could get a broad diversity of voices, but, since Wilfred Owen in both 1917 and 1918 stands head and shoulders above the other poems written, I really have no choice but to repeat one of his poems. As I mentioned before, Egremont provides a summary of biographical events for each poet during each year of the war. In the 1917 post on Wilfred Owen I had mentioned how he had been injured and spent almost a year in hospital at Craiglockhart, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, built up a friendship, and influenced each other’s poetry. But by the end of August in 1918, Owen was recovered and on his way back to the front. Ergremont elaborates:
The way to the front went through Etaples, then to Amiens to join his battalion and from Amiens to Vendelles before preparations for an attack. In France Owen completed “The Sentry”, “Exposure” and “Spring Offensive”. Of the fighting, he told his mother, “I lost all my earthly faculties, and fought like an angel.” Doubts about his courage vanished when, with a corporal, he captured a German machine-gun post, writing that “I only shot one man with my revolver (at about 30 yards!). The rest I took with a smile.” Wilfred Owen won a Military Cross.
He knew he had a mission now, to care for and to record what his men endured, how “every word, every figure of speech must be matter of experience”, must be conveyed so that any soldier could understand. “I came out in order to help these boys,” he told his mother, “directly by leading them as well as any officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I might speak of them as a pleader can. I have done the first.” What he wrote would fulfill the second.
The end came on 4 November, during an attack across the Sambre-Oise canal when three Victoria Crosses were won. Owen was last seen trying to cross the canal on a raft under heavy enemy fire. The engagement was his unit’s last time in action, the heroism perhaps encouraged by a sense that victory was near. Showing the static nature of the western front, the 2nd Manchesters found themselves on Armistice Day—11 November 1918—in billets to the south of Landrecies, where they’d been on 18 August 1914, on their way to Mons.
The confirmation of Owen’s Military Cross occurred some four days after he had been killed. One of the myths of the armistice is of the bells of Shrewsbury ringing out in celebration as the telegram boy knocked on the door of the Owen home with the news of Wilfred’s death. It’s ironic that the last letter to his mother from a poet whose work shows should say, “It is a great life…Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends so fine as surround me here.”
That Wilfred Owen died one week prior to the cessation of hostilities is one of the great tragedies of the war. Of course there were countless tragedies within the 1,568 days (4 years, 3 months, 15 days) the war spanned. As far as literature was concerned, Owen's death seems to represent the great human, and creative loss brought forth by the war.
Now to the poem.
Dulce et Decorum Est
By 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.
As the Wikipedia entry states, the title and the subsequent quote that ends the poem comes from a famous poem by the Roman poet, Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” (“How sweet and glorious it is to die for one’s country.”) The Wikipedia entry states that the poem combines two sonnets, which is not true. A sonnet does have fourteen lines and this poem is twenty-lines long, which would be two sonnets, but neither of the two halves of fourteen lines have any type of sonnet rhyme scheme. Wikipedia also says that the form is “similar to a French Ballade,” and claims that through the allusion to a French Ballade and through breaking form, Owen is making a modernist statement of disorder, if I may paraphrase. I’m not familiar with the ballade form to fully understand variation to it, but Owen’s poem doesn’t incorporate a refrain, which I would think is defining to a ballade, nor does it incorporate an interlocking rhyme scheme. The only similarity to a ballade is that it has roughly eight line stanzas with a quatrain rhyme scheme.
The poem’s structure follows a progression of thought, and here the rhyme scheme of progressing, alternating rhymes (ABABCDCD and so on) accentuates the forward thrust toward the poem’s conclusion. The poem is divided into four sections; I’ll call them stanzas. The first is an eight line stanza of which could be thought of as two quatrains. It sets the scene of a marching troop, all suffering through the hardships of soldiers on maneuver. The second stanza is of six lines, and taken with the eight can be seen as a second half of an Italian sonnet as Wikipedia see it. It is a volta, meaning a turn of thought from the initial motif. Here the turn is the introduction of a new crises, the realization that the Five-Nines (mortar or artillery shells) contained poison gas, and so the soldiers need to immediately put on their gas masks.
Both the first and second stanzas are in the past tense, and so this is set in the past. But notice how the second stanza has a stream of gerunds: “fumbling,” “fitting,” “stumbling,” “flound’ring,” “drowning.” Though not associated with time, gerunds have a wonderful immediacy that makes the language feel as if it’s present time. The “I saw him drowning” main clause clearly though situates it in the past.
The third stanza is only two lines, but it clearly pushes us into the present tense—a simple present tense of general time, “in all my dreams.” The poor dying man “plunges at [him]” in repeated dreams, again characterized by the immediacy of gerunds: “guttering, choking, drowning.” “Drowning” gains a tremendous power by being repeated with the repetition falling on a rhymed word slot.
The last stanza is made up of twelve lines with a strong break between the first eight and the last four. The tense shifts again here, this time into a conditional “if-then” construction. Suddenly there is a person being addressed, “you” and later “my friend.” Each quatrain of the eight lines has its own “if” construction. The first “if” puts the person being addressed into the situation watching the dying man, and the second “if” allows the addressee hear the suffering man. The “then” is a reproach to the addressee for promoting what Owen calls the “old lie,” the quote from Horace promoting a romanticized version of war. Shortening that last line to three feet makes the ending that much more powerful. Everything in the poem refutes the claim that there is anything sweet and glorious about war or dying in war for one’s country. The Wikipedia entry identifies who Owen is addressing in that last stanza, a Jesse Pope who apparently was a propagandist poet for the war.
There is more one can point out in the poem, such as the alliteration, the diction that accentuates the drudgery and the chaos, and the allusions to Dante’s hell. Listen for it as you hear the poem being read here overlaid with some WWI video.
So many great lines and phrases in the poem: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,” “deaf even to the hoots/Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind,” “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning,” and finally “you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie.” Egremont titles his book from that line, “some desperate glory.”
Not only the finest poem of the First World War, but truly one of the great poems of the ages.