Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est

I have been aware of Wilfred Owen as a war poet since I was a teenager. Some how or other I missed this one until Christopher Hitchins mentioned it being read out loud in class when he was at school.

The description of a single incident in the Great War makes a profound and powerful statement against all wars. World War I poetry has particular poignancy for me as my paternal grandfather participated in that war.


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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound'ring 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.

Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori roughly translates to: It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country

Hitchins wrote:

... the words of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" went off like a landmine under my concept of history and empire. The moment came in class. It was the turn of a very handsome boy named Sean Watson to read. As he stumbled his bored and boring way through the lines, I was consumed first by a sense of outrage, as if seeing somebody taking an axe to a grand piano. How could anybody be so brutish and insensitive? I wanted to wrench the book from his hands and declaim the poem. But then I found that this would not in fact be possible, because my eyes were blinded with stinging tears. To this day, I have difficulty reciting the poem out loud without a catch in my throat.

source: Christopher Hitchins, Hitch-22 A Memoir, Allen & Unwin 2010, page 71

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