Dulce et Decorum Est: How Ironic It Is
It is often said that words can paint a million pictures. Wilfred Owen's World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” gives a harrowing look into the experiences that a platoon of soldiers faces when confronted with combat action and chlorine gas. Most notably, the poem centers around the last agonizing seconds of one soldier's life who is unable to escape the clutches of the lethal gas. At the end of the poem the irony is revealed as the literal translation of the title is: “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland;” however, Owen's poem sheds light on the horrific reality that dying for one's country can be an agonizing and brutal experience. When analyzing the poem, a select few words seem to enhance the connection between the speaker and the audience by making the poem more vividly descriptive. Owen uses a few significant, strategically chosen words to emphasize the dreariness of battle, the urgency of combat, and the horrific sight of a dying man.
In the first stanza the soldiers are introduced as they march onward toward an unknown destination. “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge” (Owen 802). The word “sludge” itself in the story literally could mean a wet soggy dreary patch of land that the soldiers must pass through. However, in a more complex sense, the word symbolizes the dreariness and fatigue of battle. When people think of sludge, arguably they will picture a dark, mucky, misshapen blob of a mess that in no way could symbolize anything positive. That same attitude could arguably be attributed towards warfare too. Owen probably chose that certain word because he wanted to give a sense of what the true life of a soldier is really like. Warfare of any kind is not the glamorous, gung-ho environment that Hollywood cinema portrays it to be. War is a horrific, unforgettable experience that impacts soldiers for the rest of their human lives. Owen used the word effectively to give the audience an idea of the images of a true battlefield, which also underlies the irony of the title of the poem. Owen used the word to worsen the experiences of the soldiers and prove that dying for one's country is not a sweet experience.
In the second stanza of the poem the soldiers are faced with the terrifying experience of being gassed. “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling” (Owen 802). The word “ecstasy” seems like an unusual choice of wording given the situation. Usually it is attributed to a feeling of intense delight. However, Owen uses the word to focus more on the urgency of the situation rather than presenting the situation as a pleasurable experience. In this context a word normally attributed to pleasure is used to portray fear. The soldiers are urgently fumbling with their gas masks so they will not suffer an agonizing death at the hands of the chlorine gas. Owen's use of the word is his way of refuting the trend of literature and cinema to portray war in an artistic way, since in this case the word is describing a terrifying experience.
At the beginning of the third stanza, Owen describes the moment when the speaker notices that one of his comrades did not escape the gas, and how the soldier begins to experience the effects of the poison. “He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (Owen 802). The word “drowning” seems odd because it is usually associated with some form of a liquid, most notably water. But here, Owen uses it to describe the effects that the poison gas is having on one soldier. The word is used effectively to invoke a sense of repulse and terror within the audience, which also goes back to the irony of the title and how it is deceitful. Dying for one's country is not a glorious experience.
Overall, Owen's careful choice of words serves the purpose to underlie the irony of the title. They are not simply used to establish a sense of terror or fear within the reader, rather the also strengthen Owen's argument that war is not a beautiful, artistic experience. Owen could have chosen several different synonyms for each word, however none would serve the desired effect of irony that Owen intended. Rather they would lessen the negative effect of the poem, therefore taking away from it. Owen truly showed with “Dulce et Decorum Est” that dying for one's country is not as glorious and heroic as many would think.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” 1920. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed. Roberts New York: Pearson Education, 2009. 802-03. Print