The Purpose of Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

A look into the excellent poem by Wilfred Owen, and what lines bring across the most meaning.

Wilfred Owen is best remembered as one of the most prominent poets of the World War I era, and “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a significantly lasting poem that showed how Owen often integrated his strong stance on war into his work.  He wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est” in direct response to the pro-war poet Jessie Pope’s work, which called for young men to join the battle for the glory and success of their country.  The poem is detailed and filled with gruesome, violent imagery throughout, but the smallest stanza, consisting of only two lines, helps Owen bring his purpose of revealing the true character of war across to his audience more than any other aspect of the poem.

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” (Owen, lines 20-21)

            Owen cleverly places these two lines alone in their own stanza, which calls a greater attention to them than the other three stanzas of the poem.  All of the war imagery that was occurring in the present from Owen’s point of view earlier in the poem is now in his dreams.  The separation of these two lines signifies the parallel separation of real life

events that occurred and what happens in his dreams.  Not only did the event happen, but it also had such an effect on the author as to haunt him in every single one of his dreams.  In this way, Owen shows how the horrors of war can be so terrible that the effects on someone from the experience of it can last much longer than the war itself.

            The dark and disturbing images of war are present throughout the poem consistently and startlingly detailed, but in the two lines of explaining his dream, Owen condenses the effect of the entire poem, adding a profound significance to those lines above all the others.  The man is not just reaching for him, not just going towards him, but plunging at the author too late in desperation to save his own life.  The detachment from situations that is experienced in dreams enhances the experience of Owen in a terrifying way, disabling him to do anything to help the man.  The man is “guttering”, “choking”, and “drowning”.  These three words not only add to the very real and disturbing tone of the poem; they convey it in such a concise way that they almost embody the nightmarish feel of the entire work in that one sentence alone.

            As seen, the astounding significance of just two lines out of Owen’s iconic poem strongly express the desire of the author for war to not be seen as glorious, but as a complete assault on humanity.  The two lines show how the physical effects of war may not even be half as bad or lasting as the mental effects.  His open opposition to Jessie Pope’s call to arms for the sake of nationalism helped define the modernist wave of new ideas, and stated that human life and dignity should be valued over honor or glory. 

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1 Comment
  1. Posted January 4, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    This is really excellent. You make me understand poetry better, and make want to read more good poetry.

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