Dulce et Decorum Est - Language, tone and structure
Language in Dulce et Decorum Est
Words suggesting exhaustion
In Dulce et Decorum Est Owen does not spare his reader any of the terror of the gas attack. In the first two lines of the poem, the soldiers, many of whom would still have been in their teens, are described as:
- ‘bent double’
- ‘knock kneed’
- cursing through ‘sludge’.
Even though the third and fourth lines might seem to be positive, the ‘rest’ towards which they ‘trudge’ is ‘distant’. These negative words counter any sense of hope and joy at the prospect of moving away from the front and the ‘haunting flares’.
The gas attack
Given how critical a gas attack was, it is chilling that Owen depicts soldiers ‘fumbling’ l.9 with their equipment. Most get their masks on only ‘just in time’ but a nameless ‘someone’ has succumbed to the attack and it is his sufferings which will dominate the rest of the poem, as he cries out, stumbles and struggles to breathe. It is he who will haunt Owen’s dreams as he ‘plunges’ at him, a word which carries threatening overtones, as if he is attacking Owen.
This nightmare scenario is heightened by words which gather in intensity: ‘guttering,’ ‘choking,’ and ‘drowning’ in l.16. The use of the word ‘guttering’ is particularly unsettling. A candle gutters as it goes out for lack of air, just as the man dies for lack of oxygen.
As Owen moves away from the gas attack, addressing his anger to those at home, he employs direct and powerful verbs. He suggests that, with such knowledge, those at home ‘would not tell’ lies to children ‘ardent’ for glory.
Owen uses contrast to intensify the horror experienced by soldiers and his audience. For example, in line 8 he takes the reader off guard: the lethal ‘gas-shells’ (or Five-Nines) drop ‘softly’, as gentle rain might, and are ‘behind’ rather than an overt danger in front. These words seem impotent and unthreatening, yet in line 9 Owen punctuates the first four short sharp words with exclamation marks. Like the troops we are shocked out of the somnambulant atmosphere of the first stanza. The shock of, ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’ is followed up by ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ l.9. Owen emphasises the panic by his use if the word ‘ecstasy’, often associated with love and passion but suggesting here extreme actions of a very different nature.
Owen’s use of repeated sounds picks up the alliteration of the title. ‘Dulce’ and ‘Decorum’ are the two contentious, abstract nouns meaning ‘sweet’ and ‘honourable’, which he revisits in the final lines of the poem. Joined as they are by the similar sounds of ‘et’ and ‘est’, they set a pattern for the alliteration which follows.
Each example emphasises the horror of the event:
- soldiers are ‘Bent’ like ‘beggars’ l.1, who ‘cough’ and ‘curse’. l.2
- the hum of the ‘m’ sounds of lines 5 and 6 sound like a grim lullaby -
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on .. All went lame
Owen’s use of alliteration builds as the pain worsens. In the ‘wagon’ l.18 Owen exhorts us to ‘watch the white eyes writhing l.19 (the last ‘w’ being an example of eye-rhyme rather than audible). Finally we are asked to envisage ‘vile incurable sores on innocent tongues’ l.24. This final alliteration underlines the startling contrast between the ‘incurable’ nature of the injury and the ‘innocence’ of the victim.
Owen also draws the reader’s attention to the key actions and themes of the poem by his use of repeated short, single words:
- ‘All’ is repeated twice in line 6 to ensure we are aware that no one escaped
- ‘Gas! GAS!’, capitalised on the second use, jolts us into the awareness of the terror and horror of the attack
- Lines 14 and 16 are end-stopped with ‘drowning.’, the finality of the word and its repeated use emphasising how impossible it is for Owen to forget the man’s suffering
- Similarly, the image of the man’s ‘face / His hanging face’ l.19-20 is impressed upon our memory by being repeated
- The repetition of the ‘If .. you’ construction at the start of lines 16 and 21 highlights Owen’s anger and direct (almost accusing) communication to his readers.
In stanza one of Dulce et Decorum Est Owen uses the past tense to describe the plodding retreat from the battle field, as the men ‘marched’ and ‘turned’ and ‘went’.
In stanza two Owen moves the action first into the present continuous, demonstrating the immediacy of action – the men are ‘fumbling’, ‘fitting’. Then he moves into the past continuous: someone ‘was yelling’ whom Owen ‘saw .. drowning.’ This indicates the passage of time, yet how the sight is still very real to Owen.
In stanza three Owen’s nightmares relive the scene in the present tense - as the man ‘plunges’ - and present continuous – the man keeps on ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ in an unending loop of action.
In stanza four the conditional verbs ‘If .. you could’, ‘If you could’, ‘you would not’ (l.17,21,25) challenge the reader / ‘My friend’ in the future to share Owen’s nightmare – and perhaps have the chance to avert it.
The tone of this poem is angry and critical. Owen’s own voice in this poem is bitter – perhaps partly fuelled by self-recrimination for the suffering he could do nothing to alleviate. Owen dwells on explicit details of horror and misery in order to maximise the impact he wishes to have on those who tell the ‘old Lie’. The way in which he addresses as ‘My friend’ those with whom he so strongly disagrees is ironic.
Investigating language and tone in Dulce et Decorum Est
- Verbs tell us about the action in a poem. List all the verbs which Owen uses in this poem and explore their impact on you the reader
- Nouns depict objects. Make a list of the common nouns Owen uses and see if you can pick out any patterns
Structure in Dulce et Decorum Est
The poem consists of four stanzas of various lengths. The first 14 lines can be read as a [3sonnet3) although they do not end with a rhyming couplet, and instead the ab ab rhyme-scheme carries on into the separate pair of lines which constitute the third stanza.
Whilst the initial fourteen lines depict the situation and the events which take place, the last fourteen lines show the consequences of what has happened and Owen’s reflection on it. The final four lines are his injunction to the reader to avert similar suffering in the future.
Stanza one is largely written using regular iambic pentameter, reflecting the relentless but, sadly, routine nature of the horror the men experience. However, the opening spondees of lines 1, 2 and 5 serve to arrest our attention, as does ‘blood-shod’ and ‘all blind’ in line 6.
The stumbling, lurching progress of the men through the ‘sludge’ is conveyed by Owen’s use of caesura in the middle of line 5-7. Then, for much of line 8, Owen reverses the metre to trochaic, subtly undermining the routine, just as the shells will disrupt the men’s trudge.
In stanza two the pentameter is disrupted by longer 11 syllable lines (l.9,11,14). The additional beat gives the sense of being out of time. The pace and punctuation also changes to reflect the panic of the men, particularly with the double spondees and emphatic punctuation of line 9.
In the short third stanza, the regularity of l.15 is overturned by the extra syllables and different metres of l.16 – as if the horrific sight is too overwhelming to be constrained by a regular poetic form.
For stanza four Owen uses additional beats to emphasise the particular horror of lines 20 and 24, echoing the pattern of stanza two. He resists making everything neat and orderly. He needs us, through the uncomfortable beat associated with the similes, to hear and feel the pain. By contrast, the hollow emptiness of the final line is illustrated by writing only a trimeter followed by white space.
The heaviness and misery of the men is reflected in the slightly dull and routine ab ab rhyme-scheme. The ‘udge’ sound in English is frequently associated with thickness and limited mobility (l.2,4) just as the ‘umble’ cluster connotes a lack of precision (l.9,11). The long ‘ing’ rhymes also have the effect of slow motion, replicating the horror of slow drowning.
In the fourth stanza, the grim images of ‘blood’ and ‘cud’ (the bitter tasting, regurgitated, half-digested pasture chewed by cattle) are emphasised both by their rhyme and their delayed position at the end of their respective lines (21 and 23). By rhyming ‘glory’( l.26) with ‘mori’ (Latin for ‘to die’) (l.28) Owen makes a point of contrast and irony from the two words which seem to be so much at odds with each other.
Investigating structure and versification in Dulce et Decorum Est
- Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of normal speech. Tap out the rhythm of each line with your fingers so that you can physically check the regular / irregular beats
- Now read out the poem with a friend with one of you reading the regular lines and the other reading the irregular lines
- How does this varied pace re-create the horror of the gas attack?
- Make a note of how Owen uses structure to move us through the poem.
The Book of Genesis shows God resting after the six days of creation. The Jewish sabbath was designated as a day of rest, following this example.
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
German 5.9 inch artillery shells.
The technical name for a verse, or a regular repeating unit of so many lines in a poem. Poetry can be stanzaic or non-stanzaic.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
Abstract nouns are used to refer to abstract entities such as ideas, emotions or concepts e.g. 'happiness', 'time', 'information'.
A pair of words or final syllables that are spelled similarly but which are in fact pronounced differently.
a line of verse where the sense ends at the end of the line
The form of a verb which indicates that the action happened in the past.
Verb form indicating continuous action now: for example: I am running, they are running
The form of a verb which indicates continuous action in the past.
The form of a verb which indicates that the action is happening now.
Verb tense where the chance of action is dependent on certain factors or conditions, often formed with the modal verbs ‘could’, ‘would’ and ‘might’.
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
A word that refers to a person, place or thing
Pairs of lines which rhyme with each other.
The device, frequently used at the ends of lines in poetry, where words with the same sound are paired, sometimes for contrast ' for example, 'breath' and 'death'.
A line containing five metrical feet each consisting of one stressed and one unstressed syllable.
A unit of metre, being a foot of two long, or stressed, syllables.
A pause, often indicated in text by a comma or full stop, during a line of blank verse.
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.
Use of a metric foot in a line of verse, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed. It is thus a falling metre.
An image where one thing is said to be 'as' or 'like' another: e.g. 'He jumped up like a jack-in-the-box'.
A line of verse of three feet or stresses.
To give rise to association
“Dulce et Decorum est” - Essay
A poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen conveys the horrors of war and uncovers the hidden truths of the past century. This essay will explore on the poet’s ability to create effective imagery; his usage of expressive language and poetic techniques and how reading this poem leaves the reader to experience feelings such as pity. I consider Wilfred Owen a good poet from the very star as he shows his ability to captivate the reader into his story by applying and engaging heading.
‘Dulce et Decorum est’ reveals the hidden truths of the past century’s war, by uncovering the cruelties the soldiers were left to face. The poem is authentic as Wilfred Owen was ‘there’ to experience the atrocities of the first world war. The poem begins with a glimpse at the soldiers’ living conditions and their lifestyle which provided them with untimely age. The poet then describes a dreadful gas attack that follows along with its horrid outcomes. The Poem resumes Eventually, the poet confirms the present propaganda to be “the old lie” - as the glory of war is a myth. Reading this poem, made me realize my own luck and circumstance: I have been fortunate to have avoided the brutalities brought by world war one. The appalling conditions the soldiers were left to face made me appreciate that my own life has not been disturbed. I am devastated by the fact that even today, many innocent people are exposed to such barbarities.
The poem is started unexpectedly: in the middle of action. As if half-way through an incomplete event that has already started. The soldiers are trying to escape the enemy’s fire but their terrible health conditions dismiss them from strong and immediate actions.
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags”
This statement provides the reader with an unexpected view and appearance of soldiers, as the army cadets are usually pictures as strong, healthy and brawny looking men. The poet erases this false image of an athletic soldier, replacing it with a description of a ‘beggar’ and a ‘hag’. This means that the war had caused the soldiers to age prematurely. The following extract from the poem’s first part hints that the poet was present throughout the events:
“we cursed through sludge,”
In this quotation, the poet uses his ability to create effective imagery and provides the reader with a feeling of pity for the soldiers. Soldiers are exhausted from their unhealthy lifestyle. This prevents excuses their slow pace. The following sentence reveals a glimpse at the soldier‘s actions.
“And towards our distant rest begun to trudge”
The finale onomatopoeia of ‘trudge’ is a description of the soldiers walking through the sludges. They ‘trudged’ which suggest their slow pace and difficulty of movement. This means, that they limped and dragged themselves through these terrible conditions towards a ‘distant’ rest that was still far away, nowhere to be seen. In this statement the poet conveys the horrors of war by showing the reader the soldier’s sufferings. This made me feel awful and I doubled my sympathy towards the unfair fate of soldiers.
Wilfred Owen varies his language and choice of techniques throughout the poem to the point when every word gains a carefully planned meaning and every sentence has a purpose. The poet never fails to shock the reader with his thorough description of the poem’s events.
“And floundering like a man in fire and lime…”
Floundering could suggest no control and panic, while the finagling ellipsis could mean that the following events are too personal or terrible for the poet to mention. ’Like a man on fire’ is a simile that describes the pains of the dying man. This sentence tells the reader that the man is out of control and his behaviour could be compared to a man’s in fire. The poet made the reader experience pity towards the man by the use of his expressive language. This situation already made me realise(at least in a small degree) how unfairly the soldiers had been persuaded into joining the army without the knowledge of what they were to come across. The poet had been haunted by his past and could not break free of what has happened to him.
“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,”
The first part of thus statement suggests how the poet has been haunted by the dreadful life-taken images, while the following phrases uncovers his helplessness. The poet is trying to communicate his never-ending nightmare, as he has to face it every night , helplessly. The poet has used an effective example of imagery as reading this part of the poem the reader’s mind subconsciously creates a replica of this scene. I feel sorry for Wilfred Owen, because he was forced to accept his fait: being doomed to a never ending slideshow of horror. Throughout the poem, the poet develops our feelings of sympathy, especially through his description of the soldiers.
The poet was convinced and hopeful that nothing he experienced during world war one himself, would occur to his readers in any other circumstances. That is why, in the next example he shows his disbelief by saying that such things could only affect the reader in some subconscious vision. I consider this example as one of the most effective in the poem, as its context shocks the reader.
“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,”
The first technique used by the poet is alliteration of ’some smothering dreams’; this emphasise of the letter ‘s’ captures the reader’s attention and makes it easier to remember. The word choice of ‘dreams’ hints the poet’s disbelief in something as such happening to any of the readers in reality. The word ‘flung’ could be counted as synonymous to treatment of something useless. These techniques all have an imaginative effect on the reader, as the spectator is subconsciously imagining what is taking place. All this suggests how meaninglessly and disrespectfully the bodies of the dead soldiers were treated. This extract is another example of the poet’s ability to create effective imagery by the use of imaginative language as reading this, in my head I saw what the poet was talking about. I was shocked at the disrespect paid to the dead, though my shock did not mix with blame towards the innocent soldiers.
Wilfred Owen knew very much about his fellow soldiers, including their age and experiences. And despite their difference in age, they shared their feeling with one another. That is why the poet uses sarcasm and sorrow in this next quotation.
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,”
The poet is being ironic, when he uses the address: ‘my friend’. By this, he is addressing the ‘higher ups’ and the government who were the reason for the death of so many, while thy could prevent it. The word ‘zest’ represents engagement and vigour with which the soldiers had been persuaded into the army. The word ‘children’ explains the age of the soldiers, roughly: the boys were not even men, but children. These boys had been desperate for the ‘false’ glory - ardent for it! - but they had not been informed that there was no glory in war. It is easy to detect the poet’s opinion from the study of this extract, and from what can be studied is his detest towards the ‘people of power’ as his sorrow.
Wilfred Owen feels a variation of negative emotions towards his subject, such as helplessness and hurt. Evidence to suspect that, will be the following quote.
“Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,”
The meaning of the word ‘vile’ is synonymous to villain; this negative description was addressed to describe the wounds received by the soldiers, as they were vile and incurable. This sentence contains two metaphors: ’incurable sores’ and ’innocent tongues’ from which both were used to describe the horrible experiences of innocent soldiers and their wounds that would not heal. This quote is a proof that the poet had conveyed the horrors of war through imaginative techniques and expressive language. Wilfred Owen captured my attention by the word choice he applied in this part of the poem.
Wilfred Owen had felt the need to write such a poem, because, as he went through life, he found himself stuck in the moment of horror, trouble and weakness. He discovered that his only chance to start living again would be creation of a poem that would let go of his emotions. Another reason the poet had for the creation of this poem was justice and hope he wished to inspire in the reader. Both ways were working towards his own relief. The following quotation is the last sentence of the poem and a more detailed explanation of the poem’s title.
“The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”
The Capitalized letter ’L’ in the word ’lie’ is used to emphasise the poet’s opinion: his opposition to the old lie. Poet’s belief is clear: it is not sweet and right to die for one’s country. Wilfred Owen’s use of vocabulary and language, had made it easier for the reader to grasp the meaning behind his reflections. In this poem the poet is referring to the reader by his ironic address ‘my friend’, though in his address he means to affect the ’powerful’ part of the audience. The last sentence of the poem is definitely my favourite, as its meaning was the whole reason for Owen’s writing this poem; almost as if the whole poem has been written only for this last statement of truth. Wilfred Owen’s ability to use effective language in order to absorb the reader has been applied very correctly as I felt present for the whole time.
“Dulce et Decorum est” is a poem that made me realise my own amount of luck next to people such as the soldiers’. Reading this poem, had made me appreciate that my own life or the lives of my loved one’s had not been burdened with the terror of war. In this poem, the poet uncovered the hidden truths of the past century and he conveyed the horrors of was through the use of imaginative language and effective imagery. Studying this poem, I continuously developed and began to share opinions and emotions with the poet on the cruel treatment and indifference of the government. After multiple reflections, I began to detect a tint of irony within the title of the poem; “Dulce et decorum est” in translation from Latin gains a meaning “It is sweet and right”, and this sentence is only completes by the end of the poem, with an addition of poet’s conviction, based on experience, turning out as the irony and a consideration of ’a lie’ of “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country”. I predict that Wilfred Owen did not place his full meaning in the poem’s title, because he wanted the reader to decide for oneself whether they would agree with him in the end. I believe that the poet’s intentions in understanding of his poem were taken in by most of the readers, and I am positively sure that each of them felt the same variation of feelings throughout it.
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