Friday, January 24, 2014

Analysis of "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Original poem reprinted online here:  "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen
Originally read: July 16, 2013
More information about the Poet: Wilfred Owen

Wikipedia Analysis
Shmoop Analysis

Both links have really strong analysis for this poem, and I do recommend reading their analysis for an understanding of this poem.  So what can I bring to this poem that hasn't been already written?  Coming upon this poem for the first time on July 16 of last year, I knew this poem was famous, I knew a little bit about Wilfred Owen.  But I never really analyzed the poem

I thought it'd be fun to look at this poem with an analytic eye before reading what others had to write.  I looked up a couple things with this poem.  The latin, of course.  "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is from Horace and translates to "How sweet, how honorable" and plays on the idea of "serving one's country is both sweet and honorable."  I also looked at the bottom latin a s well.  The form is in the French Ballade From -- ten syllables per line, alternating rhyme scheme -- in (more or less) octaves.  With an envoi (summation or thoughts by the speaker about the poem) with the last four lines.

But no, don't you see the lines don't look that way...Well, separation and inclusion changes the context of stanzas and lines.  Yet the way they operate, or should, should be taken into consideration.

Well the first eight lines are pretty cohesive:

     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.

Note the abab rhyme scheme and how important it is in the poem.  There's the immediacy of comparison here.  What's being compared.  Remember, the simile is comparing something "like old beggars" and "like hags."  Soldiers.  The speaker takes away the glory through the simile but keeps the actions relevant to what these soldiers did.

     Men marched asleep.  Many had lost heir 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.

Here the speaker confirms his subject matter is soldiers based on the experiences and actions.  But note the speaker addresses the immediate drawbacks of such actions through the list created by semi-colons -- it's as though these are the end byproducts of "Marching asleep."  Lame; blind; drunk; deaf.  Note the shells dropping behind has a sense of litotes since the focus in this stanza is human deficiency.

     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. --

Mustard gas.  World War One.  This is the time context of the poem.  Note that the litotes of the previous line is quickly dissipated through the urgency of the warning, "GAS!"  Note that the speaker puts himself as the observer but also the person in charge.  In the Shmoop analysis, I saw they mentioned "ecstasy" was more of a oxymoron device in the poem to punctuate how it is not "ecstasy".  But I looked at the word "ecstasy" with this definition in mind, "the An emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence."  Not that high and mighty, but an "emotional or religious frenzy" does apply here.  Is there an implication of transcendence -- no.  But does the emotional frenzy fit here.  Sure.

     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.

Not a complete stanza, right?  Well, note the separation as different interpretations of the same scene.  The first part shifts toward a simile, "as under a green sea, I saw him drowning" however, the second part returns the simile to real action -- although the actions are qualified by being a "dream."  Note this serves as a volta in the poem where the speaker starts to play with the surreal with the real with a haunting effect.

     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;

Note that the descriptions become more lucid, more dependent on metaphor especially the line, "like a devil's sick of sin."  Note, also, the earlier line about "ecstasy" with a context of religion as well.  The soldier, who, realistically is dying in the back of a wagon, is described as one going through "ecstasy"  the previous lines foreshadowed this in a sense.  Also note the first mention of "you" which is addressing the reader -- the desperate attempt to connect the experience -- dreamlike or not -- to the reader to understand.

     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.

Here's a more realistic description that plays on the senses, then goes into the metaphor.  Hearing, "froth-corrupted lungs" is vivid.  The simile as "Obscene as cancer" starts to shift away from the real and into the metaphor, "bitter as the cud"  so when the last line appears, "incurable sores on innocent tongues." There's multiple meanings of "innocent" going on here.  Innocent as in not yet harmed until this point.  And innocent as in naive, and unable to say anything.  The usage of "you" continues here as well to, once again, draw the reader in to the experience.

     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.

Here the speaker addresses the you as "My friend" -- as though the speaker illustrated his point that there's no glory in war.  Yes, this is the envoy, the part of the poem in which the speaker sums up and discusses his poem.  But note also that the saying "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is stated in full here to serve as a quantifier.

How sweet, how honorable to die for one's country.  This saying focuses on the act -- to serve one's country.  However, the speaker is focusing on the personal -- actually seeing the death of someone dying for ones country -- and they don't mesh with the speaker.  Is this an anti-war or pro-war poem?  Whatever people can get from it.  The subject is more towards the personal in the beginning, and ends with the conceptual.

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