When Patriotism Becomes the Virtue of the Vicious

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?


Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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    • I firmly believe that it is up to all of us to be conscientious objectors to war rather than allow ourselves to be swayed by politicians and businesses who look upon weapons as toys and a battlefield as a playground that they are too cowardly to approach at a distance, let alone participate in. Owen is doubtlessly one of the leading war poets of WW1 but he is not the only one. War anniversaries and Remembrance Day are worthy reminders of the many sacrifices our ancestors made (those that are alive continue to make) and also to remind us how precious peace and mutual respect (despite our differences really are. Your time and comments are much appreciated Massimo. Buona domenica a te e ai tuoi cari.

      P.S. I’d be honoured if you go through the sort of sequel to this piece Thanks once again.

  1. Thanks Noemi. The enigma of poetry: poetry seems to inhabit shadows that mark out the fuzzy edges of consciousness; it deals with things familiar, and yet, like the mask of death in Charles Dickens ‘The Signal man’ it haunts us, pulls us towards the sublime, death…With each reading of poetry that leads to glimpses of something deeper, sublime there is death of the old consciousness.

    When I listened to the poem, the description of a man’s fumbling, grasping death…what difference is there between the poetic description of and the act of death? So close it seems to me that in death there is poetry, and in poetry there is the death of consciousness. Consciousness is stilled by the sublime!

    Also, to me, the poem recalls Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: behind each death on the battle field is Death and Life-in-Death and the flick of a dice. And the poem like the Ancient Mariner seeks out those who must hear the voice that carries the weight of the human condition.

    • Thank you so much for your wonderful words, Mark. Your comment: ‘The enigma of poetry: poetry seems to inhabit shadows that mark out the fuzzy edges of consciousness’ resonates deeply and strikes many a chord. I am also with you re your comments about Coleridge’s beyond beautiful ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

  2. Very beautifully written and informative article, I would like to give a direct answer to your question, of course war is immoral, and my knowledge of the causes of the First World War is like that of a lot of us, as you suggest in your article, rather vague. But the Second World War is more clear cut, it was a battle against evil, though we can argue about how the evil was allowed to arise in the first place, or whether the methods to defeat it were justified, I am thinking of the bombing of Dresden, or the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Still, if I may focus on something more positive, well, negative as well it that it reminds us of the enormous talent that was lost in the First World War, but poetry seems to emerge in the very worst of circumstances and grim reality transformed into something.. well, ‘beautiful’ may seem to be a rather grotesque term to use in this context but I think you know what I mean. Owen was a great poet, intelligent, thoughtful, well read, knowledgeable. He was familiar with the thoughts of Kant on aesthetics you know… evidenced in his notes to an unfinished poem on beauty … beauty even in a shrapnel ball:
    The beautiful, the fair, the elegant,
    Is that which pleases us, says Kant,
    Without a thought of interest or advantage
    A shrapnel ball –
    Just where the wet skin glistened when he swam –
    Like a fully-opened sea-anemone.
    We both said ‘What a beauty! What a beauty, lad’
    I knew that in that flower he saw a hope
    Of living on, and seeing again the roses of his home.

    • Very glad to ‘meet’ you David. Your time and comments are much appreciated.

      Owen is definitely one the best poets to have emerged from WW1 – his voice burnished with the horrors he witnessed at first-hand as well as his love for Shelley and Keats which both impacted and inspired his sensuous imagery. Thoughtful and sensitive he certainly was. Although this is manifest in his trench poems, it is even more visible in his letters and the unfinished Preface to what would have been his anthology of WW1 poems. Two of the most insightful remarks are:

      – ‘All the poet can do today is to warn.’ (Preface) Once again this shows Shelley ‘s influence on him.

      – ‘Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.’ (cited in once of his letters from the Front) That he was an agnostic long before the war broke out makes this perception even more riveting.

      I’d like to respond to your salient comments about war by inviting you to read the sort of sequel to this piece:

      Thank you once again for reaching out.

  3. Cheers for this article Noemi – it certainly has me thinking. There could be reasons to go to war, very few of them I would think have much to do with freedom. It has me thinking of one of my favourite songs, “A Farewell To Arms” (Machine Head), which directly addresses this topic, and in particular, one line – “Who has won when we’re all dead?” – Jason

    • Many thanks, Jason, for your reach out and comments. Very telling lyric indeed. And even if some of us do survive, there are never any victors. Incidentally, unless you have already done so, read Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ – a truly heart-wrenching narrative.