Depiction Of The Horrors Of War In Dulce Et Decorum Est By Wilfred Owen
Trudging through endless muck and gore, trenches infested with rats, desolation as far as the eye could see. This was the plight of many young men in World War I. However, those beyond the inescapable confines of the battlefield knew little of the truth, as the government manipulated the media in the attempts to utilise war for political purposes in this time. Wilfred Owen, a young poet who fought in the war, wrote in opposition to the pro-war propaganda poems designed to inspire young men to join the fight for their country, using a variety of language features throughout his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ to create a vivid setting which uncovers the real horrors that were occuring on the battlefield, and that death in war is not as glorious or heroic as we were lead to believe.
Owen immediately thrusts the reader into the intensity of war, simultaneously confronting us with images of weakness and defeat through use of similes. In the opening stanza, he refers to the soldiers as ‘old beggars under sacks’ that were ‘coughing like hags’. In doing so, Owen establishes the frailty and lack of heroic valor that these soldiers possess, causing the reader to feel shocked and conflicted by the apparent discord between what they believe soldiers to be like, and what is being revealed to them in this first line. By calling these soldiers ‘beggars’ and ‘hags’, he not only suggests that these once heroic men have now been stripped of their bodily integrity, but also reduces them to cast-off elements of society, and in doing so makes the reader see these soldiers as lesser beings.
The diction in the first few sentences contain words such as ‘haunting’ and ‘trudge’. This is language of deprivation and imminent struggle, hardly appropriate for the glory of the battlefield, reinforcing the disbelief in the reader at the harsh atmosphere the soldiers are placed in, while also uncovering the adversity and exertion the men are encountering. The descriptive language creates a graphic setting in the reader’s mind as Owen describes how the ‘men marched asleep’ and ‘limped on, blood shod’. The soldiers are wading through a sea of blood and bodies, taking the reader right into the thick trenches of war. This appalls the reader, as no one should have to experience something as horrific and distressing as this, causing us to reflect this horror and outrage as we sympathise with the troops as they march on in search of their ‘distant rest’.
The barbarity of the surroundings continues to intensify in the second stanza as the soldiers come face to face with a gas attack. However, one soldier does not get to his gas mask in time and is trapped in ‘An ecstasy of fumbling’. The use of the word ‘ecstasy’ creates a sense of trance-like frenzy as the men struggle to put on their helmets. Here, the poem becomes personal and metaphorical, as we are now seeing things through the eyes of Wilfred Owen himself. He sees the man consumed by gas as a ‘drowning’ man, almost as if he were underwater. ‘Misty panes’ adds an unsettling element to this traumatic scene, as it makes the reader feel like they are trapped being a window, incapable of helping this poor soldier, as if they too, like this dying soldier, are imprisoned in this world of bloodshed and can only wait as this horror unfolds. The extent to which these soldiers, and Owen, have been truly affected by the devastation that surrounds them is portrayed as the speaker confesses how ‘before my helpless sight’, reiterating the feeling of helplessness that was encountered previously in the poem, the dead soldier ‘plunges’ at him ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. This amplifies the personal effect of the scene, the graphic image searing through and scaring the reader, despite the ghost-like atmosphere created by the toxic gas and the floundering soldier. As Owen uses the word ‘plunges’, this exposes Owen’s own guilt at his inability to save his comrade, suggesting that Owen believes that his fellow soldier blames him for his death.
In the final stanza, the sensory and descriptive language extends the vivid imagery as the author describes how the drowning man is disposed of. The alliteration of ‘watch the white eyes writhing’ creates a distortion and inhuman feature on the young soldier’s face. Not only does Owen want us to see the suffering on the man’s face to show that this is not a heroic death, but he also identifies that this could be anyone in this soldier’s position, suffering in the same way. The description of the blood that came ‘gargling from froth-corrupted lungs’, and the soldier’s face ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’ is used to create a dark and painful image to convey the depths of which suffering is imbedded in these men, even down to their last breath. By starting this stanza with an ‘if’, this allows Owen to subtly indicate the difference between him and the reader. We do not experience what Owen, and many other soldiers, had to go through, so we are unable to completely grasp the brutality that occured on the battlefield, only getting a hint at what is was like from what Owen has chosen to reveal.
This difference shows a noticeable contrast between Owen and poets like Brooke and Pope, who wrote about many extravagant journeys and boyish adventures but never themselves got to experience the harsh realities of war unlike Owen. This draws attention to the previous idea that they will never be able to truly comprehend the atrocities that the men the coerced into enlisting experienced. The Latin excerpt from Horace’s Odes ‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’, which directly translates to ‘it is a sweet and noble thing to die for one’s country’, was the mentality that many people, particularly young school children, were brought up believing in. By including it at the end of his poem, Owen addresses the reader, as well as those back home who are ignorant of the realities of battle, that if they were to understand the magnitude of the brutality and inhumanity of war, they would not praise the works of people like Jessie Pope and Rupert Brooke, or conform to the ideology of ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.
In conclusion, Wilfred Owen uses various language features to create a vivid setting designed to shock the reader, while also divulging the hidden realities of life as a soldier in the First World War. This poem holds great cultural importance, as it was one of the first anti-war poems written, and sparked the flame of many other great poems like ‘The Hero’ by Seigfried Sassoon, a fellow comrade who experienced the horrors of trench warfare at the front line, and ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves. Owen implores the audience to be mindful of the snare war can coil around individuals, and consider how unjust and atrocious war is. He also wants to shine light on the repercussions of readily trusting the government, advising us to keep our guard before it’s too late.
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