Dulce Et Decorm Est Analysis

Dulce Et Decorum Est


Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” describes the gruesome and frantic moment when war-weary soldiers suffer a gas attack, but the “helpless” speaker watches one soldier, who is unable to reach his mask on time, “choking” and “drowning” in the fumes.

Based on his own terrifying experiences on the front line, Owen’s depiction of the soldier’s excruciating death exposes the “old lie” that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, crouching 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 gas shells dropping softly 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 jest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


The first verse focuses on the exhausted soldiers walking towards their “distant rest” after returning from the battlefield. In the opening line, Owen compares them to “old beggars” who are “bent double”. Soldiers are supposed to be strong and healthy young men, but this simile suggests they are decrepit and unable to support themselves. Instead of being dressed smartly and proudly in their uniform, they are pictured “under sacks”.

The soldiers’ weariness is reinforced in the next line with the description of them being “knock-kneed” and “coughing like hags”. This vivid simile reduces the servicemen, fighting for their country, to old and sick women who are finding it difficult to breathe.

The men are so exhausted they “marched asleep”. This hyperbole suggests they are no longer conscious of the world or the dangers posed by the dream-like “haunting flares”. This lack of awareness of their surroundings is repeated in the metaphor “drunk with fatigue”, which presents the soldiers’ inability to control their movements because they are intoxicated by their experience on the front line. They are “blind” and “deaf” to the perilous “gas-shells dropping softly behind”.

The repetition of the pronoun “all” emphasises that each and every one of the soldiers are “lame” because of their recent surge against the enemy’s lines.

The Gas Attack

After the vivid description of the soldiers’ condition and the stiff rhythm of the opening octet, Wilfred Owen creates a very real sense of alarm at the start of the second verse:

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time”

The sudden panic in their voices is conveyed through the three exclamatives that open the octet. The repetition certainly increases the volume and tension, especially the way Owen capitalises the second “gas”, and the imperative “Quick, boys” adds to the urgency.

The “ecstasy of fumbling” then defines the trance-like madness of the men struggling to use their “clumsy helmets”. Sadly, one of the soldiers fails to reach his protective gear in time.

Unable to help, the speaker is forced to watch him “yelling out” and “stumbling” when he begins to suffocate on the chlorine gas. The violent pain of his “flound’ring” is conveyed vividly through the similes which compare his suffering to a “man in fire” or being burnt by noxious “lime”.

From behind the safety of his helmet’s “misty panes”, the speaker describes the soldier “drowning” in the gas. The simile comparing the air to “under a green sea” sets up this idea of the man being completely engulfed in gas and the surreal slowness of his final movements when he hopelessly fights for breath.

Since most of us have no experience of a chlorine gas attack, Owen uses the three straightforward similes to get across the horrible torture effectively to the reader. Nobody wants to be burnt alive, scalded to death by lime, or face the prospect of having their lungs filled with water.

His death was so gruesome and traumatic that the speaker cannot escape the memory and relives the moment in “all” his “dreams”. It seems the poor soldier will always be “guttering, choking, drowning” in the speaker’s mind.

Smothering Dreams

The final verse challenges the reader to imagine the shocking and inglorious treatment of the soldier’s body when he is “flung” into the “wagon” without any care or ceremony. By using the second-person pronoun “you”, Owen positions us “behind the wagon” so we can witness “every jolt”.

Te image of his “white eyes writhing in his face” is particularly grisly. Although the soldier is dead, his eyeballs still roll around the sockets because of the wagon’s progress over the rough paths. The poet draws attention to this wavering rhythm through the alliterative “watch”, “white” and “writhing” which occur on the stressed syllables of each metric foot.

In another gruesome image, the “blood” is presented as “gargling” in his mouth because of the stream of air escaping from his “froth-corrupted lungs”. Owen emphasises the disgusting description by appealing to our sense of sound through the onomatopoeic “gargling” and the inventive compound adjective “froth-corrupted”.

When the wagon jolts across a rut, the “blood” drains down the soldier’s throat only to flow back into his mouth. Owen compares this “gargling” to “cud”, which is how cows regurgitate a portion of their food so they can chew on it again.

This “bitter” simile is repulsive and, when combined with the previous “vile” images, exposes the dreadful brutality of warfare. Owen wants to leave the reader in no doubt that the great war in Europe and beyond is not glorious.

The poet also compares the “gargling” to “cancer”, but the use of the word “obscene” introduces the moral implications of battle. He then describes soldiers’ “tongues” as “innocent”. In this way, Owen is arguing that it is cruel and wrong to send “children” off to fight because there is no “glory” in death.

The Title

The title comes from a passage in Horace’s “Odes” which urged the citizens of ancient Rome to become more skilled and aggressive in warfare so they could strike fear into their enemies. His phrase, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, presents death in war as virtuous and noble. In other words, the poet believed people should be prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country.

This attitude was certainly promoted at the start of World War One and inspired many young men to enlist in the army. The following poster, known as Lord Kitchener Wants You, epitomises the propaganda that was being produced at the time:

Lord Kitchener Poster

The war against Germany was presented as glamorous and thousands of men young men were eager to volunteer because they had a strong sense of patriotic pride. It was going to be a great adventure.

However, Owen takes the Latin phrase and calls it “the old Lie”. The awful death of the soldier in this poem demonstrates that it is not sweet and fitting to die for your country.

Context and Setting

Wilfred Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the summer of 1916 and, at the end of the year, was sent to France with the infantrymen of the 2nd Manchester Regiment. In the first letter he sent to his mother, he joked, “since I set foot on Calais quays I have not had dry feet” and then he was “let down, gently, into the real thing, Mud”.

The poet certainly understood the difficulties of wading and cursing through the thick “sludge” of France’s battlefields. In another letter, he told his mother how he was “overtaken by GAS”. Fortunately, “it was only tear gas” and he “got safely back” with “nothing worse than a severe fright”. However, this experience may have inspired the poet to write “Dulce Et Decorum Est”.

Structure and Verse

Firstly, the slow, laboured movement of the soldiers is conveyed through the sounds and rhythm of the opening verse. In terms of meter, there are five feet in each line with many of them beginning with a stressed syllable. For example, the trochaic “drunk with” delivers the falling rhythm and the spondees “knock-kneed” and “men marched” prevents those lines from building momentum. Notice how the alliteration of nasal sounds in the final two examples also slows the pace of the poem down. They create a very deliberate heaviness to the rhythm that conveys the difficulty of moving through “sludge” with no “boots”.

The sentence structure of the opening verse underpins this weary tone. In the first sentence, there are four short subordinate clauses before the main clause is introduced. At this point, the alliteration of /k/ in “coughing” and “cursed” adds to that sense of drag, and the long vowel sounds of “cursed through sludge” seem to prolong the line. By the time the reader reaches “trudge”, which is the closing rhyme of this abab quatrain, we are almost out of breath.

Owen begins the second verse with four stressed syllables: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” By breaking from the usual rhythm and flow of English poetry, he is able to evoke the sudden panic of the soldiers very effectively.

The poet then conveys the confusion of the gas attack very effectively through his deliberate collision of sounds. Notably, there is the consonance of /m/ in “fumbling”, “clumsy”, “helmets” and “time”; the sibilance in “ecstasy”, “clumsy”, “helmets” and “just”; and the repetition of /t/ in “ecstasy”, “fitting”, “helmets”, “just” and “time”. There is also the alliteration of /f/ in “fumbling” and “fitting”. The combination of these sounds delivers a frightened and desperate tone.

You really need to read the two lines out loud to get a good understanding of their lyrical quality.

In the second verse, you will also notice the poet’s deliberate repetition of unstressed /ŋ/ in “fumbling”, “fitting”, “yelling”, “stumbling”, “floundr’ing”, and “drowning”. This sound is repeated in the couplet, which follows the description of the soldier’s painful death, in the triple of verbs “guttering, choking, drowning”. Obviously, the natural falling rhythm of these words, created by the stressed syllable followed by the unstressed nasal sound, is an attempt to convey the staggers and stumbles of the dying soldier. By using so many verbs in their continuous form, Owen brilliantly conveys how he cannot escape from the memory of this terrible event. It will always be in his “dreams”.

The final verse consists of two conditional statements followed by the conclusion. The poet is arguing that it is easy to see war as glorious and honourable when you are sitting comfortably in an armchair at home. However, “if” you were to witness the horror of war first hand, then you would not believe “the old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori”.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What two similes are used to describe the soldiers marching in the opening two lines?
  2. What impression do these two similes create of the soldiers?
  3. Why are there “haunting flares” being fired behind the men?
  4. What impression does the verb “trudge” suggest about the soldiers’ movement?
  5. How does the poet suggest the men are exhausted in the rest of the first stanza? Use three quotations to support your answer.
  6. How does the poet create a sense of urgency at the start of the second stanza through language and poetic devices?
  7. What does the adjective “clumsy” suggest about the helmets? Some research might be useful to support your response.
  8. The poet uses the simile “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime”. What does this comparison suggest about the man?
  9. In your own words, describe what happens to the soldier in the second stanza.
  10. Where do the soldiers place their dead comrade?
  11. Comment on the effect of the alliteration of the /w/ sound in the line, “and watch the white eyes writhing in his face”.
  12. What happens when the wagon begins to move and “jolt”?
  13. Are the images describing the man’s “froth-corrupted lungs” pleasant or vile? Comment on their effectiveness.
  14. What is the intended meaning of the last lines of the poem?
  15. What do you think is the poet’s attitude to the war?

Remembering World War I

Christopher Eccleston read “Dulce Et Decorum Est” for Channel 4’s “Remembering World War 1” series.

Learn More

Thanks for reading!