How does Owen depict the realities of war in Dulce Et Decorum Est?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1545

Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce Et Decorum Est is a brutally shocking and thought-provoking poem that details the horrors of life in the trenches for soldiers during WWI. Owen’s use of graphic imagery and bitter tone makes it a representation of Owen’s anger on the loss of innocence and the futility of war. The poem centres around the agonising moment in which a group of soldiers, including the speaker, encounter a lethal gas attack during a march on the battlefield. This image seems to contradict the irony of the poem’s title, which is mentioned in the last verse and translated as: ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for the fatherland.’ Owen sheds light on this ironic phrase by describing the horrific reality that dying for one’s country can be an agonising and brutal experience for naïve young men, brainwashed by patriotic propaganda.

Owen writes the poem through the combination of two sonnets even though the spacing between them is irregular. The broken sonnet form and irregularity reinforces a sense of loss and despair, themes that reoccur through the speaker’s nightmare. Owen breaks away from the conventional poetic form, symbolising the breakdown of society’s value system on glorifying the consequences of war, a notion Owen rejects through irregular stanza breaks. The men’s heaviness and misery are also reflected in the slightly dull and monotonous ABAB rhyme scheme. By rhyming ‘glory’ (Owen, line 26) with ‘mori’ (Owen, line 28), Owen makes a point of contrast and irony from the two words which depict the reality of suffering through death, an idea resonating through images of the man ‘chocking’ from the gas. The horrifying picture is further reinforced through long ‘ing’ rhymes such as ‘fumbling’ (Owen, line 9) and ‘stumbling’ (Owen, line 11) to emphasise the effect of slow motion, replicating the horror of slow drowning, for the speaker caught observing the situation.

Stanza one is written using regular iambic pentameter, reflecting the monotonous march the soldiers have become used to. However, in stanza two the pentameter is disrupted by longer eleven syllable lines; thus, this additional beat gives the sense of being out of time as the situation is too overwhelming to be constrained by regular poetic form. The state of panic is further highlighted through the heightened pace and punctuation such as dashes, hyphens and exclamation points causing the poem to sound conversational when read, a technique purposefully used to indicate the realism of war; his poem is not a lyrical piece because often war is a horrific ideal, leading to the loss of innocent young men whose naivety ends with death.

The reader is immediately introduced to graphic imagery in the first lines of the poem as Owen depicts the poor physical condition of the men as ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’ (Owen, line 1) who seem to be ‘coughing like hags’. (Owen, line 2) The reader learns that the soldiers are hunched over and hobbling, the simile compares the soldiers to be ‘beggars’ (Owen, line 1) which connotes the men being uncared for, homeless and impoverished. Making the young men analogous to old beggars sharply contrasts with the stereotypical image of agile soldiers in clean-cut uniforms, excited to be fighting for their country, pointing out the truth is far from the false claim. The image of an infirm soldier is further continued by comparing their coughing to ‘hags’ (Owen, line 2); the phrase has negative connotations of being associated with a wizened old woman, therefore the young men have had experiences that have aged them beyond their age. Instead of being rosy-cheeked and lively, they have become feeble despite having the rest of their years ahead of them, emphasising the mockery, Owen seems to be making on war corrupting innocent young men who have glorified the reasons for fighting. Additionally, the use of harsh sounds in the form of the alliterative “b” in ‘bent’ and ‘beggars’ (Owen, line 1) has the effect of recreating the sounds of coughing, making for a more evocative depiction of men who have aged beyond their years.

Owen describes the physical horrors of war through powerful imagery and alliteration to convey that the consequences of war can only be understood by those who have experienced it first-hand, instead of people who claim to have understood by representing false propaganda. He mentions that ‘Many had lost their boots/But limped on blood shod. All went lame; all blind’ (Owen, lines 5-6). The phrase ‘blood shod’ (Owen, 6) describes their feet, covered in blood as they have no boots to wear. ‘Shod’ is more commonly used to describe horses; the use of it in this context de-humanises the soldiers associating them as beasts of burden and not men, hence pointing out the desensitising nature of the war.

Alliteration is used in the lines through repetition of the l, m and b sounds. The repetitive sounds of l and m have a slightly fuller and mellow sound which effectively reflects the fatigue and exhaustion of the soldiers; however, the use of b sounds is harsher and sharper which is illustrative of the slow and steady march that is often disrupted by death and suffering in the men’s sight. Furthermore, there is a sense of hopelessness through the phrases ‘Blind’ and ‘lame’ (Owen, line 6) because they contain biblical references; both are conditions in which Jesus heals in the Gospels. Therefore, using the phrases amidst a war seems to illustrate the notion that there is no saviour figure such as Jesus forthcoming, echoing the brutality of war and the fact that the men suffer alone even in death.

In one of the most horrifying scenes in the poem, Owen uses violent imagery to depict an unexpected gas attack, demonstrating the trauma and tragedy of trench warfare. The second stanza seems to portray the urgency of the men through the line, ‘Gas! GAS! Quick boys!’ (Owen, line 9) The sudden change of pace in the second stanza is a stark contrast to the slow, laborious pace of march as reflected in the long sentences of the first verse. The repetition in the sentence also increases tension in the poem and the use of exclamation marks and short words encapsulates the unexpected and abrupt nature of the attack, both for the soldiers fighting and reader who has to change the pace of their reading. The speaker demonstrates the brutal consequences of the attack on an individual soldier: ‘as under a green sea, I saw him drowning’ (Owen, line 14). The metaphor of ‘drowning’ compares the man’s suffering to drowning under a sea; this image emphasises the helplessness of the man as he is left completely vulnerable to the elements and reminds the reader of the personal face of war through the torment of an individual man.

Owen also explores the mental horrors of war that can affect an individual such as post-traumatic stress disorder and reoccurring nightmares as experienced by the persona in the poem: ‘In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, chocking, drowning’ (Owen, lines 15-16). The use of emotive language in the word ‘helpless’ effectively illustrates the sense of despair and futility experienced by the speaker regarding the Great War. The word also generates empathy from the reader because they become aware of the frustration the speaker must feel at the fact that he was unable to save his counterpart’s suffering and is thus reduced to becoming a passive observer to the horror in sees after he has fought in the war. The sense of timelessness of war is further reiterated through the sentence being written in the present tense, conveying the message that the soldier will always suffer mentally from the brutality he witnessed.

Furthermore, the first-person narrative in the lines such as ‘my’ and ‘me’ shows the speaker is telling the story from his own experience; it is not an experience that can be satirised through false propaganda or images, reinforcing the irony of it being honourable to die. Moreover, the use of the rule of three with the verbs ‘guttering, chocking, drowning’ serves to emphasise the agony the man experienced in his death and also for the speaker who has to witness the ordeal, creating a sense of chaos. Owen strengthens his message in the last verse by accentuating the suffering of the soldier by referring to the ‘wagon that we flung him in’ (Owen, line 18). The phrase ‘flung’ connotes a dismissive and violent action, indicating the lack of compassion or grief, thus tragedy is commonplace, and death is a daily part of life for the men.

Ultimately, the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est is a deeply poignant and brutal poem that sheds light on the realism and cruelty of war through vivid imagery and bitter irony to challenge war patriots who glorify the need for war. The poem encapsulates the disparity between young men’s expectations and the realism of the war; the message behind the poem depicts the real tragedy of innocent men who are misled into sacrificing their lives for their country without being aware of how vile and inhuman the war was.


Owen, Wilfred, Dulce Et Decorum Est, Poetry Foundation, at (accessed 27/08/2021)

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