Sample Essay on Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est"


Owen's Attitude to War in "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 gas-shells dropping softly 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,
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.

Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a magnificent, and terrible, description of a gas attack suffered by a group of soldiers in World War 1. One of this group is unable to get on his helmet, and suffers horribly. Through his shifting rhythms, dramatic description, and rich, raw images, Owen seeks to convince us that the horror of war far outweighs the patriotic cliches of those who glamorize war. In the first of four stanzas, Owen presents the death-like calm before the storm of the gas attack. Alliteration and onomatopoeia join with powerful figurative and literal images of war to produce a pitiful sense of despair. "Bent beggars", "knock-kneed", cough and "curse" like "hags" through "sludge." All of this compressed into just two lines! The third line places the speaker of the poem with this trudging group. In the simple "Men marched asleep" sentence, the three beats imitate the falling rhythm of these exhausted men. The pun "blood-shod" makes its grim effect on us slowly. We guess, too, that "blind" and "lame" suggest several levels of debilitation. The stanza ends with the ironic-quiet sounds of the "shells" dropping "softly behind."

In contrast to the first stanza, the second stanza is full of action. The oxymoron,"ecstasy of fumbling", seems at first odd, but then perfect, as a way to describe the controlled panic -instantly awakened with heightened sensibility- of men with just seconds to find a gas mask. "But..." tells all. One man is too late and is seen only through the "green sea" of mustard gas, "yelling... stumbling...drowning...guttering...choking."

The third stanza's brief two lines emphasize the nightmare these events continue to be for our speaker.

In the last stanza, Owen becomes more insistent as he drives atus with the steady rhythmic beat of iambic pentameter. We feel the "jolt" of the wagon, see the "white eyes writhing" in this "hanging face," and, most horribly, hear the "gargling "of the blood choked lungs. The amazing sound-filled simile, "like a devil's sick of sin," testifies, along with all the rest, to the overwhelming truth of this experience. It is not "if" we could see the horror of this scene. We do see it - through the vitality and freshness of Owen's language. And, as he predicted, having seen it, we agree with him that the old Latin proverb -dulce et decorum est...- is indeed an odious Lie.

406 words -
Conciseness The essay is short but still tries to cover a lot of ground. It is all too easy to write a thousand words and say less.
Clarity The trick is to organize the essay and sentences so as to draw the reader in as easily as the material will allow.