There is a difference between observing from a distance and experiencing something first hand. War is one of those things where the difference is massive. The casual observer can read and see that war is a glorious thing, but that feeling is not usually shared by those participating in the war. Wilfred Owen was a soldier, but also a poet. In Wilfred Owen's poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, he writes from his personal experiences with war. By using imagery and similes, Owen sends the message that war is not glorious and heroic, but a horrible thing that robs men of their humanity.
In the first stanza of Owen's poem, he evokes a feeling of pity to the men in war by using similes and imagery to show how the men have been losing their own feelings on life and their senses. From the beginning of the poem, the reader is thrust into the soldiers' footsteps on a forced march. Owen uses similes to portray the men as feeling ancient as they are “bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags” (1-2). This description of the men conveys the fact that the life has been sucked out of them and now they feel old and decrepit. They march on slowly towards a place where they can rest, and Wilfred's imagery creates a feeling of despair and gloom around the men. These are not bright and cheerful surroundings, but a dull and repetitious background the soldiers march through. They “cursed through sludge” (2). The words Owen uses are chosen with care as sludge is not a word that is associated with anything good. The men continue to march “towards our distant rest began to trudge. / Men marched asleep. Many at lost their boots / But limped on, blood-shod” (4-6). This image of men forced to continue to march towards the slim hope of rest that they have not received stirs up a feeling of pity towards the soldiers. These are men who are losing what it is to be human. They have even begun to lose their senses as “All went lame; all blind; / Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots” (6-7) of artillery shells dropping around them. It is these artillery shells that are used for a gas attack described in the second stanza.
The second stanza of Owen's poem depicts a gas attack and the loss of emotion and empathy towards others that the war inflicts on a man through imagery and similes. It is in this stanza that we see some signs of life from the men as they desperately try to survive with “an ecstasy of fumbling, / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;” (9-10). Owen describes the entire scene with vivid imagery as the gas attack takes place. From the persona's view, the world is “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea” (13-14). The use of the color green can be associated with nausea and disease and the soldiers are surrounded by it. Also note the simile about the green sea as it is used to show how men are drowning in this sea of death. It is here we see the distancing of emotion the men have gone through as one of the men either can not get his gas mask on or does not even have one. The dying man looks to the persona desperately for aid and is met with no response. These soldiers are already dead inside to emotion and are unwilling to help a fellow man in need. The persona merely observes the dying man as he “saw him drowning. / In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (14-16). There is no mention of soldiers trying to help him live. They all just stand there watching him die, detaching themselves from the emotions that make us human. Hughes sums this up as “the deepest, complicating iniquity of war is that its events can dispossess one of one's best self, dividing oneself from oneself and others and overwhelming one's most humane of responses towards pity and truth” (166). These soldiers have lost the ability to be empathetic to their fellow man and are now devoid of all emotion.
In a time when much of the poetry and prose was written to support war and glorify it to entice the young to serve, Wilfred Owen spoke out against it using his personal experience. To him, and to many other soldiers, war was a horrible thing that could suck the life out of man if they weren't already killed. With his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, Owen uses similes and imagery to depict men who have lost their humanity and their very souls to the war they were fighting in. To Owen, poetry was about truth, and there is no harsher truth that he could have stated than in this poem.
Hughes, John. "Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est." Explicator 64.3 (2006): 164-166. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 31 Jan. 2010.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th compact ed. Boston: Longman, 2010. 443-444. Print.