A Poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Wilfred Owen: Talented Poet Killed in World War I
.......Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England, in 1893 and studied at the University of Reading. Because he could not afford to continue his education, he left school and worked as an English-language tutor in France while also writing poetry. After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the loss of so
many young lives horrified him. Nevertheless, after returning home in 1915, he enlisted in the Artist's Rifles of the British army, received a commission, and shipped out to France in late December 1916. Over the next several months, he wrote poetry to record his impressions of the war. In the spring of 1917, he exhibited symptoms of shell shock after experiencing the hell of trench warfare. He
also contracted trench fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by lice. His superiors returned him to Britain, where he underwent treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, then a suburb of Edinburgh and now part of the city. While there, he continued to write poems, one of which was “Dulce et Decorum Est.” An experienced poet who was also receiving treatment, Siegrfied Sassoon
(1886-1967), helped him edit and polish his work. After his discharge from the hospital, Owen mingled with poets and wrote more poetry. His work by this time was showing great promise. Eventually, he returned to the army—and to war. He died in action in France just one week before the war ended (November 11, 1918). He was only twenty-five. However, his war poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est"
and "Anthem” lived on and today remain as meaningful and relevant as when he wrote them.
.......“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a lyric poem expressing in stark language the poet's reaction to the horror of war. Owen intended it to rebut the notion that combat is a noble and glorious pursuit.
.......The scenes described in the poem took place during World War I (1914-1918) on a battlefield in France. The Allied Powers of Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and other countries were fighting the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungry, and other countries.
.......Owen wrote "Dulce et Decorum Est" in 1917 while undergoing treatment at a war hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland. In 1918 he included it in a collection of poems he was preparing for publication. After returning to duty, he died on a French battlefield. His soldier friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), teamed with poet and prose writer Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) to edit the poems. The London firm of Chatto and Windus published the collection, The Poems of Wilfred Owen, in December 1920.
.......The title is part of the Latin quotation at the end of the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Here is Owen's own translation of the quotation: It is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Others have translated the third word, decorum, as glorious, noble, or fitting instead of meet. The source of the quotation is the second ode in Book III of Carmina (Odes) by the ancient Roman writer Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace (65-8 BC).
The meter pattern of the poem is iambic pentameter, which consists of five pairs of syllables. The first syllable of each pair is unstressed; the second, stressed. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the pattern.
.......The first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, the third with the sixth, and so on.
.......The first stanza sets the scene, a battlefield with war-weary soldiers on the march. The second stanza centers on the central image of the poem: a gas attack in which one soldier, failing to put on his gas mask in time, dies in agony before the speaker of the poem. The remaining lines present the
.......The theme of the poem is straightforward and unambiguous: war is hell on earth, and there is nothing glorious about it. In presenting this theme, Owen was also presenting a warning, as he makes clear in the preface to his collection of poems.
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their bootsHyperbole
Men marched asleepMetaphor and Simile
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,Onomatopoeia
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludgeStudy Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write a short essay arguing that "Dulce et Decorum" is as meaningful today as it was when Owen wrote it in 1917.