To mark Remembrance Day, this poem has been recommended by another Mark: Mark Brown from Bibby Factors Scotland. It is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by the poet-soldier Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918). Mark calls it ‘undoubtedly the greatest poem of the First World War’. I agree. It was also one of the first poems I did at school that really made me take notice and realise that poetry wasn’t all the silly-flowery-girly-love nonsense I had previously suspected it to be. Owen’s brutally realistic depiction of a gas attack on a group of soldiers already ‘blood-shod’ and ‘drunk with fatigue’ has lost none of its power nearly a hundred years later.
And yet, for all its vivid horror, this is a poem in which I take much pleasure: pleasure in the sense of something well done and fittingly achieved. From out of the chaos and death and destruction, Owen created something ordered, something lasting, something worthwhile. There was no reason in what was happening, so he at least made it rhyme: he made it into music, and so, in some small way, made it more bearable.
(The Latin line ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ comes from the Roman poet Horace and translates as: ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. It was well known and often quoted at the time. ‘Five-Nines’ were 5.9 calibre explosive shells.)
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.