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Q: Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: abdul9830-ga
List Price: $12.50
Posted: 29 May 2003 04:44 PDT
Expires: 28 Jun 2003 04:44 PDT
Question ID: 210188
Hi,  Could you please give me some points on the following:
(1) subject theme and tone of this poem;
(2) poetic devices and their effects;
(3) structure, rhyme and rhythm
Subject: Re: Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen
Answered By: tehuti-ga on 29 May 2003 07:51 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello  abdul9830

Here are some thoughts to get you started. 

(1) subject theme and tone of this poem; 

In this poem, Owen’s objective is to show the horror and reality of
war, specifically the First World War, and to set this horror against
the way in which war is so often glorified.

The glorification of war is reflected in the Latin words taken from an
ode by Horace (poet of Ancient Rome, 65-8 BC): “Dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori”. This phrase can be translated as: “it is sweet and
right to die for your country.”  These words of Horace were well known
in Owen’s time, and were often quoted at the start of WW1. Owen shows
his opposition to the sentiments of these words specifically by
calling them an “old lie”, and also illustrates his opposition in the
whole of the poem.

As his illustration of the reality of war, Owen describes an incident
of exhausted soldiers trudging through the mud of the battlefield.
They are leaving the front line in order to rest for a few days in a
safer place. However, the group is attacked by mustard gas. This is a
substance used in chemical warfare. It reacts with water in the lungs
to form a corrosive chemical which destroys the lungs.
One soldier is too late in putting on his mask. Owen describes the
symptoms shown by this man as the poison slowly kills him.

The tone of the poem is very harsh due to the diction (the choice of
words and how they are used). Owen gives us graphic descriptions,
speaking in a very direct and straightforward way, uwing words that
convey ugliness, fear and pain, for example: “coughing like hags”,
“cursed through sludge” , “limped on, blood-shod”, “floundering like a
man in fire or lime” [lime here means quicklime, a corrosive
substance], “guttering, choking, drowning”, “white eyes writhing”,
come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”, “vile, incurable

Owen wants us to be shocked at the reality that he is presenting. He
is not afraid to show his own feelings, through the use of emotive
words such as “cursed”, “obscene”, “bitter”, “vile”.  In the line
“Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge” he again
contrasts reality with the idealistic way in which war has been
presented, when soldiers are pictured as singing while marching
proudly to their glorious deaths.

(2) poetic devices and their effects; 

“bent double”, a commonly used phrase, is an example of hyperbole
(because someone might be bent over, but not really bent in two).  It
conveys the feeling of exhaustion felt by the soldiers, who are
probably carrying heavy packs as well as having been sleepless in the

Metaphor: “drunk with fatigue”

“Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”
“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots”
“And watch the white eyes writhing in his face”
The use of alliteration adds to the insistent tone of the poem. Owen
is saying, “Hey!  Look!  I want you to look at this and remember!”  He
hammers home his point, so that it is impossible to turn away and
think of other things.

“GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!” Capital letters and exclamation marks, and
the resulting break in metrical structure create an impression of
urgency and panic.

There is an effective use of simile.  At the start of the poem, the
soldiers are likened to old, crippled ugly beings: “Bent double, like
old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags”.  This
contrasts with the fact that the so many of those who fought in WW1
were very young, and it also contrasts with the pictures of handsome,
upright soldiers so much used in propaganda. Owen also makes this
contrast by setting these beginning lines against the ending of the
poem.  In the final lines, he refers to the soldiers as having
“innocent tongues” (ie being childlike), and notes that the “old lie”
of the glory of war is told to and believed by “children ardent for
some desperate glory”. Owen wants us to feel angry about the
misrepresentation and about the ensuing waste of lives that have only
just begun.

“like a man in fire or lime” – another use of simile to express the
burning and blistering effect and the pain caused by the mustard gas
when it comes into contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes.

“Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green
sea. I saw him drowning.”   Another simile: The thick greenish glass
of the gas mask, and the greenish fumes of the gas make the narrator
feel that he is viewing an underwater scene.

“His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin”  This simile is very
ironic. Sin to a devil is the be all and end all of existence. If a
devil becomes sick of sin, he is effectively questioning everything
that has so far been seen as being of value, and his face shows the
extent of his disillusion as he realises his whole life has been for
nothing.  Perhaps Owen is implying that, in the same way, the dying
soldier is questioning everything he has been told about the glory of
war, the nobility of patriotism and the sweetness of dying for a
cause. In a further twist, he could even be equalling these “lies” and
their results (ie war) with sin.

"bitter as the cud" echoes "those who die as cattle", words used by
Owen in his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth”.  The soldiers are being
led to slaughter like helpless animals.  This is further reinforced in
the phrase: “the wagon we flung him in”, where the dying soldier is
being treated more like an animal carcase than like a human being
(although not from cruelty, but because nothing else was possible in
that situation).

“bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” 
Chewing the cud is what a cow does when it regurgitates grass it has
eaten and chews it again to extract more nutrients.  The “retasting”
is a metaphor of the memories that the survivors of this incident will
have. The memories will be unpleasant and incurable. They will spoil
the previous innocence and naivety of these young men.

Owen uses four main groups of imagery that run throughout the poem:
A – tiredness, sleep, dreams, a nightmare world: “Men marched asleep”,
“Drunk with fatigue”, “In all my dreams”, “If in some smothering
Owen apparently suffered from nightmares, perhaps as a result of
B – the sea and drowning: “Dim, through the misty panes and thick
green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” “He plunges
at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”, “gargling from the
froth-corrupted lungs”
C – loss of coordination: “Bent double”, “Knock kneed”, “Drunk with
fatigue”, “fumbling”, “clumsy”“stumbling”, “floundering”, “writhing”
D – loss of the ability to use the senses, or a denial of the senses:
“turned our backs”, “marched asleep”, “all blind”, “deaf even to the
hoots”, “my helpless sight”

Actually, each of these could be taken as reflecting one of the
effects of the mustard gas on the body, so that the poison can be seen
as extending to the whole scene, not just to the dying soldier.
Perhaps then the gas can be seen as a reflection of the poison of war

(3) structure, rhyme and rhythm

“Owen reacts to the war by turning conventional poetic technique into
something that appears to be normal on the surface but in reality is
tainted and corrupted. Owen's break from the conventional poetic form
serves to symbolize the breakdown of society's value system - a system
that had been trusted for many years. Owen also breaks from the pretty
language prevalent in the poetry of his day to show his society the
awful images of real and not romantically heroic war. Finally, Owen
juxtaposes the idea of war as devastating and the idea of war as
heroic to illustrate the poem's ultimate irony - "Dulce Et Decorum
Est, Pro Patria Mori"” (Mika Teachout, see ref. below)

The rhyming structure is conventional, using full rhymes: sacks-backs,
sludge-trudge, boots-hoots, etc.  The rhyme scheme is of alternating
rhymes in groups of 4: ABAB CDCD EFEF etc  However, these are broken
up in an irregular way, rather than being presented as quatrains. The
poem consists of 28 lines. This is the number of lines used in the 
French “ballade” structure, however, the ballade is made up of 3
stanzas of 8 lines with the rhyme scheme ABABBCBC, and a final 4-line
envoy with the scheme BCBC. Owen uses more rhymes than this, and
breaks up his stanzas irregularly into 8, 6, 2 and 12 lines.

Another way to look at the poem’s structure is to see it as being
based on two sonnets.  The first one, with one stanza of 8 lines and
one of 6 follows the stanza form, if not the rhyme structure of the
classical Petrarchian sonnet. The second one could be seen as being an
inversion of the stanza form of the Shakepearian sonnet (3 quatrains
or 12 lines plus a final couplet).

The poem is written more or less in iambic pentameter. This is the
metric scheme used by Shakespeare and many other famous poets. In true
iambic pentameter, each line contains 10 syllables, in which
unaccented and accented syllables alternate, starting with an
unaccented syllable and finishing with an accented syllable. Most
poets will introduce some variation into this metric structure to
avoid falling into a monotonous rhythm (tee-tum- tee-tum- tee-tum-
tee-tum- tee-tum), however Owen breaks up the rhythm to the point of
sabotaging it. He does this through his use of punctuation, which
includes exclamation marks and hyphens as well as commas and full

The metre becomes most broken up in the description of the moment of
the gas attack, in these two lines:
“GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,”
“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
These two especially pronounced breaks in the metric structure act to
convey the sense of panic and helplessness.
In the last line of the poem, Owen leaves iambic pentameter
completely, as if he feels it is not worth making an effort to place
the words he so despises within the proper metrical structure of his


I took some of the ideas from the following, and added some more ideas
of my own:  ( is
an educational resource for school students produced by The Guardian
“"Dulce Et Decorum Est" - A Literary Writer's Point of View” By Mika
Teachout. Published in “Writers Write, The Internet Writing Journal” Article by Kenneth
Simcox. Web site of the Wilfred Owen Association

Search strategy: "dulce et decorum" combined with one or more of:
rhythm, rhyme, structure, metaphor, simile
abdul9830-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Excellent information and coverage of the questions. Very well done.

Subject: Re: Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen
From: magnesium-ga on 04 Jun 2003 20:25 PDT
Such an elegant and scholarly answer! The researcher tehuti-ga is a
national treasure. Assuming that Google is a nation, that is. ;)
Subject: Re: Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen
From: tehuti-ga on 06 Jun 2003 02:00 PDT
Dear magnesium

<BLUSH>  Thank you!

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