Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Essay on "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Analysis on Dulce et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen was a war poet who fought and died in the trenches of France. He dedicated his works to revealing the atrocities and hardships of war, which the British government had tried to keep hidden from the British public. One of Owen’s more powerful works, "Dulce et Decorum Est", depicts the appalling conditions in which the soldiers of World War 1 fought under, and is written so skillfully, that every reader is left with numerous grotesque images embedded in his or her mind.

The three stanzas in the poem all serve a different purpose, each strengthening the influence the poem has on readers, and developing the message in a different way. The poem illustrates the sickening death of a man who loses his life during a gas attack and would have made quite an impression on wartime readers, to whom such atrocities were unknown.

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The poem makes such a strong impression because of the effectiveness of each stanza and how successfully they integrate with each other. The first stanza is dedicated to establishing in the reader’s mind just how horrendous the soldiers’ surroundings were, how hopeless their situation was and how near to death they were. Owen’s use of similes and words such as “trudge”, “marched asleep” and “Drunk with fatigue” stresses the fact that the soldiers were no longer strong, vigorous and healthy young heroes, but were now tired and wretched souls more suitably compared with “old beggars under sacks”. This stanza makes for a startling and attention grabbing beginning to the poem.

Having established in the readers’ mind how impossible the soldiers’ situation was, Owen abruptly changes his style of writing from descriptive to active. This about face in style ‘jerks’ the readers’ mind to attention, drawing him into the poem and emphasizing how at any time the soldiers’ situation could become deadly. His use of the word ‘ecstasy’ when describing the ‘fumbling’ which ultimately leads to the death of a man is unusual, but because the word is normally associated with the heightening of emotions, it is quite suitable to describe a life or death situation. The exhaustion and weariness of the first stanza is obliterated by the use of the word ‘ecstasy’. It stresses the adrenalin that rushes through the soldiers when their lives are put in danger and also creates a peculiar sort of confusion for the reader. “Flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” and “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” describe how quickly the mustard gas engulfed and consumed the man, like a vast ocean overwhelming its victim and drowning him.

Owen’s third and final stanza is probably the most powerful and confronting of the poem. In it, Owen is attempting to correct the people encouraging young men to fight in the war by saying that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. He relates the experience of walking behind a wagon being used to transport the body of a dead man who had “blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”, and having to “watch the white eyes writhing in his face” in an incredibly successful attempt to convince his audience that most men’s deaths during war were not heroic but horrific. To establish a connection between the reader and his writing, Owen makes use of the reader’s senses to ensure that the final stanza makes a real impact on the reader.

"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;"

In this phrase, the poet is making use of the reader’s sense of sight, attempting to implant in the reader’s mind some of the sickening sights which he bore witness to. Owen also uses the same technique for hearing and taste.

The poem’s purpose is quite simple. The poet is attempting to make it clear in people’s minds that war is not pleasant, and that encouraging young men to go to war is both wrong and outrageous. To do this, he describes the grotesque and pathetic demise of a soldier whose death was not ‘sweet’; nor was it glorious. The man was not and would never be considered a hero; his death did not help the war effort; he was not happy to die and during his death did not feel or act like a hero. Throughout the poem Owen depicts the wretched and monstrous conditions the soldiers fought in, how fatigued war had made them, and how near to death they all were at all times. In his final stanza, the poet draws together all the images which he has embedded in the reader’s mind, and twists them all into an argument against the way his society was encouraging young men to go to war. Then, in his final sentence, Owen assures the people encouraging children to die for their country, that if they had experienced the atrocities he had, they would not be able to bring themselves to tell anybody that a death during wartime is ‘sweet’ and ‘fitting’.

It is Wilfred Owen’s use of similes and metaphors and his choice of words that makes “Dulce et Decorum Est” such an influential poem. His words are simple but incredibly powerful and forthright capturing the blunt and dangerous nature of warfare.

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame;...”

“Blood-shod” is a very basic word, but one that creates a strong image very simply. It makes the reader feel the pain of the soldiers’ feet, having to walk without any foot protection. “Dulce et Decorum Est” is adorned with words just as effective as ‘Blood-shod’, so effective in fact, that Owen is able to manipulate the reader’s mind, making the reader feel as if he is actually experiencing war for himself. Owen reinforces the power of his words through his incredibly skilled use of similes and metaphors. “And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” is a brilliant simile, giving an image of a man flailing about with no hope of survival as he is overwhelmed by mustard gas. It is the metaphors and similes such as,

“Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”

Which bring to life the terrible atrocities of war, and embed unpleasant and grotesque images in readers’ minds. The poem does have rhyme throughout, however it does not have much effect on the poem, and would probably go unnoticed by most readers.

Owen’s purpose in “Dulce et Decorum Est” is to discourage young men from going to participate in World War 1, and this message may be a little dated at the present time. However, the poem is not made irrelevant because of this. Instead of being read as a warning against participating in war, it can now be read as a warning to never let war establish itself and once again wreak havoc on our society. Or it could be read simply to establish in a person’s mind that war is far from glorious, and that war should be avoided at all costs.

The use of similes and metaphors, words and clever structure of “Dulce et Decorum Est” makes it a powerful and incredibly confronting poem which I would recommend to anyone. This truly is a timeless masterpiece, which I do not believe could ever become out dated. I believe that our society is becoming more relaxed about war.

People are resorting to violence more readily than trying to work it out and poems such as “Dulce et Decorum Est” are now needed to remind people of the atrocities of war and what its violence results in. I also believe that youths today do not have a great understanding of war, and that if they continue to go uneducated about wars’ devastation and severity, than they are more likely to become involved in war.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” and other war poems could provide this education.

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