November brings its yearly associations of death whose reverberance urges many families to visit cemeteries where their dearest are laid to rest and somehow strive to connect with their spirit. Imagined conversations mingle with unforgettable memories and more than intimations of mortality, rendered even more searing by Autumn’s falling leaves strewn on or around tombstones. An azure or leaden sky does not make the difference for a somber aura persists and clings. Indeed, November makes a fitting backdrop to Remembrance Day.
November 11, therefore, looms as most appropriate to remember the fallen in conflagrations we call war. It is the time of year that encourages to ponder on lives gunned down or blown up to smithereens.
For those who have no experience of ‘man’s brutality to man’ (Michael Morpurgo’s words not mine) people killing each other in the name of their country is akin to the detachment of a history lesson. You get to know some details in the safety and comfort of your homes and it has always amazed me how endless historical facts provide insight into the prevalent socio-political background and war strategy but rarely project the human faces and voices of those who fell in the line of fire.
As I am writing this piece the BBC docudrama 37 Days comes to mind. Produced to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 it recounts the 37-day countdown from the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 to the UK declaring war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Structurally, it is brilliant for it escalates the tension at every move and turn while fluctuating between the variant perspectives of the monarchs and governments involved. The script convincing. The acting a mix of first- and second-rate where Ian McDiarmid’s Sir Edward Grey is truly outstanding. And it is his words uttered in honest, undramatic, and moving stupefaction as he admits that he never gave a thought to the death of men on the battlefield in his diplomatic dealings which bring the mini-series to an end; intimating unspeakable horrors that would grip the collective memory of a war that would become ‘a metaphor of all wars’ to quote Morpurgo once again.
Today, unless you happen to be a history buff or a historian, you will probably scratch your head if asked when WW1 broke out and ended. This is particularly true of children, teenagers and even young adults who are deliberately denied history lessons. Does wearing a poppy at this time of year mean anything to them? At the surface, the reason boils down to a utilitarian concept of education. Dig deeper and you will realise that generations with no inkling of the past make life extremely easy for propaganda machines revved up to keep the political elite in power. A tactic that is as old as politics itself, though there is a chilling cynicism when patriotism is exploited as ‘a virtue of the vicious’ (Oscar Wilde). Which is why I would like to share my appraisal of one of the most canonical poems to come out of the First World War – Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
Born in 1893 into a modest middle-class family, Owen did not rush into responding to his ‘call of duty’ when war was declared. On the contrary, he was keener to save his skin to realise his dream of becoming a poet. At that point in time he was working as a private tutor to the children of a wealthy family living in the Pyrenees. He eventually enlisted in October 1915 and after seven months of training crossed the Channel to join his comrades-in-arms. He would be shot dead a mere week before Armistice, his parents receiving the dreaded black edged telegram while the bells were peeling to the relief of an entire nation celebrating the restoration of peace.
Owen served as a second lieutenant with the Manchester Regiment. His actual combat experience lasted a few weeks, yet they were more than enough to inspire poems that depict war in its true colours – an orgy of barbarity perpetrating the most violent and futile of death on a massive scale.
Given the dearth of mass communication, censorship, and the soldiers’ own reticence, the ‘nation at home’ had little idea of trench warfare. The images of soldiers on recruiting posters and in popular books projected a chivalric vision of war. Optimism and jingoism in Britain ran high particularly at the outbreak of hostilities and before the infamous Battle of the Somme (1916) which left every family bereaved in one way or another as the thousands of names of the fallen were printed in the newspapers for the first time. Thousands of men responded enthusiastically to Lord Kitchener’s slogan ‘Your Country Needs You’, which in turn, spurred on boys to lie about their age in their quest for medals and glory.
The reality they eventually confronted was unspeakable “carnage incomparable and human squander”, a phrase Owen conjured in another trench poem called ‘Mental Cases’. Owen was shocked and angered by what he saw. Rather than a glorious, heroic struggle between Right and Wrong, ‘the Enemy’ comprised muddy, waterlogged and rat-infested trenches, cold weather, infection, disease, bad management and weapons of mass destruction like chlorine gas and tanks. Furthermore, No-man’s-land was an eerie, blighted moonscape of craters, unexploded shells and the decomposing bodies of unburied soldiers. Its relentless greyness was only lit by flares, gunfire and lethal phosphorescent gases.
Owen felt bitter at how people, especially young recruits, had been lied to. He wrote poems intended to shock the public into the truth about the nature of war as he and his men experienced it. This is primarily why he so often chooses to begin his poems in medias res because this technique plunges us into a hell without warning. Indeed, Owen’s poems slamming war as chivalrous and heroic are best defined as moral propaganda; their photographic realism an unsurpassable account of the horrors perpetrated over a span of four and a half years.
Is there a hint of this in Owen’s choice for the title of the poem? His contemporary readers would have expected a patriotic poem, perhaps on the lines of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. Owen plays on their expectations by exploiting the popular Latin call to arms taken from Horace’s odes to create a conflation of shock tactics. Years on, post WW2, post-Vietnam, post-the Balkan crises, the ever-incandescent Middle East, the horror depicted in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is still unnerving.
The poem begins with a highly dramatic picture of some soldiers turning their backs on the battle to take some rest. Rather than heroes, the soldiers are:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Owen’s similes present a totally contrasting image to the media hype of the upright soldier, singing patriotic songs and marching proudly in his smart uniform. The rhythm of these lines is deliberately awkward, clumsy, jerky and heavy because Owen wants to confront us with the effort of the soldiers dragging their feet, hobbling and stumbling in the sludge that is a far cry from a parade ground.
Their wretchedness is reinforced by the alliteration of harsh consonant sounds, especially, /k/ and /g/ as well as the emphatic reiteration of /b/. “Drunk with fatigue” vividly depicts the exhaustion of battle-worn soldiers. They are too tired to run for cover. They are “deaf to the hoots/ Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.” Significantly, the very bombs are “tired”. Owen’s use of pathetic fallacy makes weariness pervade the entire scene. Isn’t your pity aroused?
The weary tone is suddenly overcome by the unimaginable ghastliness of a gas attack. Once again Owen is spot on with vivid detail. The command of: “Gas! Gas! Quick Boys!” gains in foulness and suddenness because it comes hot on the heels of the gas bombs known as Five-Nines falling with sinister silence.
Soldiers had to be continuously alert for even a few seconds exposure could mean death. “An ecstasy of fumbling” and “clumsy helmets” vividly imparts their dazed and panicky motions in putting on their masks. Once again, the rhythm and the texture of Owen’s diction re-enacts the scene because the consonant clusters of “ecstasy … fumbling… clumsy… helmets” makes you feel the sweat as you twist your tongue to say them. The word “Boys” adds to the pathos as Owen reminds us of the soldiers’ youth and the officer’s fatherly feeling towards his men.
“…just in time;” give us some respite. But Owen is uncanny in his refusal to end the line with a full stop. Now comes the most dramatic touch. With the simple word “But”, Owen shatters our hope that everyone is safe as he introduces the terrifying scene of helplessly watching a fellow soldier twisting and contorting in agony:
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Highly expressive verbs conjure the vivid close-up detail. Owen has no intention of sparing us the full plate of gruesomeness. The fluorescent chlorine gas enshrouds all in a “dim…thick green light, /As under a green sea”. Try and imagine the guilt agonizing the soldiers who are helplessly looking on for none of them take of their own mask even though they would like to save him.
Nor does actual death signify that it is all over. On the contrary, Owen resorts to the recurrent nightmarish quality of his trench poems as he cries out:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The vivid verbs and the harsh consonants are rendered more powerful by having this brief, stark stanza link two chunkier ones. Jolting rhythms growing out of the dissonant rhyming couplets and broken iambic pentameter also show that Owen’s nightmares will not end. They smother him with violence of the asphyxiated soldier coughing his lungs out. The final stanza is deliberately long because Owen wants to drive home the accumulation of horror in watching:
… the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
That the devil, who thrives on making us commit sin, is now sick of sin, makes Owen’s simile a very strong statement indeed. The haunting visual imagery is compounded by the horrible aural images of:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
These are rendered even more ghastly by another string of powerful similes:
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues
The repetition of “face”, yet another pile-up of electrifying verbs and adjectives, harsh consonant sounds and a staccato rhythm reach a memorable climax in Owen’s denunciation of:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
Sandwiching the poem between a slogan in a dead language heightens the revulsion and pity of men cut down in their prime. By ending on a twist of the famous Latin catch phrase, Owen perfectly fuses his tone of bitter anger and pity. With the final note of anti-climax, Owen caps a highly dramatic poem with just the right jolt, rendering it as one of the most moving indictments of war.
It comes as another shudder to realize that the poem’s structure is pinned on a flashback because Owen’s descriptions are so dramatic and powerful that we feel the appalling scenes unfold before our very eyes. Owen indeed takes pains to pitch the drama by exploiting most of his typical shock tactics, namely, the in medias res opening, the powerful aural and visual imagery, the vivid diction, the upsetting mix of tones and, moreover, his experimentation with structure even though he steers clear from the use of pararhyme which he came to perfect in so many other poems such as Strange Meeting.
In fact, a closer look at the stanzas – totaling twenty-eight lines – reveals a measured breaking up of two sonnet structures. Although the poem is written in alternate rhyming couplets, the use of iambic pentametre is combined with the occasional alexandrine. This creates a staccato rhythm that is further reinforced with the grating aural and gory visual imagery, emphasized by vivid diction. The resulting impact creates a sharp contrast between the traditional and non-traditional poetic aspects which Owen uses to heighten the apocalypse of trench warfare and his anti-war message.
‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ illustrates an uncanny tension between form and message. Owen’s anti-war stance, reinforced by his first-hand experience of trench warfare, leaves the reader in no doubt of the grim, horrifying and tragic realities of war. By addressing the reader directly at the very end of the poem his denunciation of war becomes even more compelling.
Despite inevitable political scheming, heartfelt arguments both condone or condemn the justification of war. What is your stand on the morality/immorality of war?