Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Veteran's Day, originally Armistice Day, the observance of the ending of World War I, the "War to End All Wars," on November 11, 1918. I share this poem lest we forget....

Wilfred Owen, 1893 - 1918

Wilfred Owen is considered the leading poet of World War I. He served with British combat troops on the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant, and experienced firsthand the horrors of trench warfare, including the use of mustard gas, the subject of this poem.

He was wounded in a near miss by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out alone on the battlefield before he was rescued. Soon after he was given a medical furlough for shell shock.

In August, 1918, Owen returned to the front line. On October 1, 1918, he led units of the Second Manchesters to storm enemy positions near the village of Joncourt. On November 4, 1918, one week before the war ended, he was shot and killed while attempting to traverse the Sambre Canal with his troops. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents in England on November 11, 1918, Armistice Day.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in the Joncourt action. But his poems, which look unflinchingly at the reality of war, stand as his most enduring tribute.


Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. --from an ode by Horace
("It is sweet and proper to die for your country.") 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! --An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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