Literature since the time of the Ancient Greeks glorified and glossed over the horrors of war, making it seem as a worthwhile, honorable, and romantic male endeavor. This same philosophy carried on even until past the time of America’s bloody Civil War and the war heroes of poetry, much like in the days of ancient civilization, were put on a pedestal and treated as national treasures. For the most part, war, although undeniably tragic, was viewed as necessary and in many ways romantic ad this is especially apparent in the poem “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. This notion was shattered at the beginning of the twentieth century and the First World War. Heavy causalities from all parties were inflicted and disease and other side effects suffered in war torn cities and villages were rampant.
History is an important factor when attempting to perform an analysis that gets to the heart of the meaning of “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. As one critical source puts it, “To calculate the total losses caused by the war are impossible. About 10 million dead and 20 million wounded is a conservative estimate. Starvation and epidemics raised the total in the immediate postwar years” (Liddell 12). Up until this point, this First World War was seen by many as a vital effort to control the spread of dangerous imperialism but it seems quite to fair to posit the idea that no party would have any idea of the complete devastation caused by the conflict from 1914-1918. “The shock of trench warfare–the appalling, almost suicidal requirements of going over the top against emplaced machine guns, mass slaughter of long-range artillery fired by unseen opponents, the huge scale on which war was being waged–was mind-searing. As the western front settled into a condition of bloody stalemate, the conditions under which men were made to live and to fight seemed the antithesis of what civilized existence was supposed to be” (Rubin 137). The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by one of the most brutal wars in history.
The poem “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen reflects many of the horrors experienced in the war. Termed the “Great War” World War I brought about a great change in the minds of Westerners who had grown accustomed to the rosy pictures painted by Romantic and Victorian authors, poets, and painters. The gruesome nature of the Great War, however, shattered these visions of civility and no poem or document from that era reflects the disgust and disillusionment felt by some many during and after the war than Wilfred Owen’s 1918 poem from the trenches, “Dolce et Decorum Est.” Shortly before penning the poem, Owen wrote, “Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” (Stallworthy 16). Although one cannot deny that his suggestion regarding “Dolce et Decorum Est” that he was not “concerned with poetry” may have been a humble statement, the fact that he explores the dark side of war allows his poetry, in terms of traditional structure, to take a back seat to the images he wishes to convey.
The high number of deaths caused by the Great War, the “inhumane” nature of trench warfare as well the introduction of new deadly chemical weapons such as mustard gas all contributed to the sense that humanity had become “uncivilized” since for the first time in history, photographs reinforced the large scale destruction both in terms of property and lives. Instead of seeming like a noble endeavor, war had now been tainted by the impressions left from harsh combat and the Western Victorian notions of what it meant to civilized were proven to be an illusion. “There is a commonly voiced Whiggish version of this ‘loss’, which has it that the Victorians were rejected after the First World War. That war, many historical commentators argue, crystallized the growing anti-Victorian mood to be found before 1914 in the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and the novels of H.G.Wells and Samuel Butler” (Gardiner 19). Perhaps then the time was ripe for a large-scale rejection of the ideas of the Victorian age with its polished veneer of civility and propriety. It is a telling exercise to look at the literature from the mid- to late Victorian period and contrast it with that which was being produced during the Great War and especially after it as there a strange sense that the authors are attempting to portray the reality that Victorian literature and art lacks, yet they seem so stunned by the ultimate absurdity of the devastating war that even their efforts at presenting reality are skewed. This disillusionment with the Victorian age and Romantic periods during and after the Great War would eventually be the foundations for modernism, but it is worth looking at a literary precursor to this period—most notably one that was written at the height of the action by Wilfred Owen, a man directly involved and witness to the horrors presented by the trench warfare of the War. Before embarking on a study on his most famous poem, “Dolce et Decorum Est” however, it seems vital to place his work even further into the literary setting.
Wilfred Owen, in part because of this famous poem “Dolce et Decorum Est” is established in the modern canon as one of the seminal war poets of the past century, however, even with such a status it is unfair to attempt to hold him up as symbolic of all war poets. “Most American and British anthologies require at least three poets to chart this trajectory from pro-war romanticism to anti-war protest: the romantic Rupert Brooke, followed by the Angry Siegfried Sassoon, and completed in the passionate Wilfred Own. Yet not a single one of these most anthologized voices fit the War Poet model themselves. Wilfred Owen’s ambiguous relationship to the war in 1915 is well documented and Sassoon’s early war poetry (what little he wrote before reporting to the front) celebrates not heroic nationalism but manly camaraderie—a quality he not only continued to value in the war but which also formed the very basis of his protest” (Sychterz 9). If there can be any defining factor among such poets—any common point that relates them to one another aside from the surface connections such as holding strong sentiments about the war, it would be that they were all suffering from disillusionment, albeit to different degrees and in different ways. “Scholars studying twentieth-century war memoirs have reached the almost unanimous conclusion that in the twentieth century, at least in the Wes, soldiers have become disillusioned with war, and their own image has partly changed from that of heroes to that of victims” (Harari 43). Surely, the main focus of Owens’ poem is that of a victim, the man who has been asphyxiated by the gas but the larger picture is that all of the soldiers were victims; not just of their foreign enemy, but of their own delusions of what war would be life.
Owen’s poem, “Dolce et Decorum Est” stands out among others because of how poignantly he expresses, particularly at the end, this disillusionment when he concludes (after detailing a grisly event in which he has watched a fellow soldier die after a gas attack) “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (Owen 1918). The maxim of “Dolce Decorum Est is essence means that it is honorable, glorious and “decorous” to die for one’s country and obviously, instead of confirming such a notion—one that has been ingrained in Western thought since the time of Euripides and Aeschylus (and likely well before)—he blatantly rejects it and puts out a warning to others that may be prone to the same sort of disillusionment he suffered when he entered the war. One scholar puts it rather prosaically and aptly when he states, “From out of his death-world, Owen wrote a rebuke to the fathers that had wooed them, asked too much of them and then, apparently abandoned them” (Knox 48). The use in this analysis of the poem of the words “death-world” hearken back to the type of language used in medieval epics such as Beowulf (with the compounded words) as well as the idea of “rebuking the fathers” which is just like saying that all the hundreds of centuries of men have been utterly wrong and are in need of admonishing after their act of deception—whether it was unwitting deception or not. I
In a more generalized way, the poem “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen represents a massive shift of course for the whole of Western literature from the time of Caesar until the assassination of the Archduke that sparked the onset of the Great War. For the first time, a poet is not describing war in grandiose and epic terms with a readily identifiable set of male heroes, but rather is showing in grisly realistic detail the kind of horror and senseless death war causes. It seems strange to think that the whole course of the epic war narrative would be erased forever (at least in its most traditional and blindly masculine and heroic way) as the result of poets like Owen bluntly detailing the ravages of war on a society that considered itself to be the model of civilization. When confronted with such wartime realities, it is no wonder the Romantic and Victorian ideals were almost instantly shattered. “After it became obvious that there would be no quick solution to the ordeal, the moral and ethical assumptions developed during generations of peace and of seeming material and social progress received an abrupt check. The ensuing disillusionment, coming as it did so swiftly and catastrophically, called into question the validity of the basic ideals under which the western world had supposedly been functioning. The gap between belief and actuality, between patriotic faith and the requirements of trench warfare, took on the dimensions of an abyss” (Rubin 140).
During the time Wilfred Owen was writing “Dolce et Decorum Est” in 1917-1918, England and her allies, despite the heavy causalities were entering into a period of rampant nationalism that would suddenly disappear after the war—after the full effects of the poverty and misery it caused had to time to be felt on a wide scale. In some ways this seems like the “last hurrah” of the Victorian age, as though England and other Western nations heavily influenced by Victorian and Romantic era ideals were trying to savor the last vestiges of their way of life before it was to be replaced by something new and perhaps dangerous. That “something new” would be modernism and this paper, among other arguments, attempts to convey the idea that Owen’s poem was, in fact, a revolutionary work, and one that was just enough so to spring modernism forward. Considering that until the time of Owen and “Dolce et Decorum Est” there was widespread fear and depression among citizens of all countries on both sides of the fight but it remained, for the most part, unspoken. One must wonder if people were afraid to speak against the war and the notions about civility that had been so firmly entrench for over one hundred years by Western art and literature—that perhaps by speaking their fears it would bring everything to collapse around them.
Tales of soldiers being shot, quite literally, to pieces by giant new machine guns appalled the whole idea about a genteel and educated society that was firmly rooted in propriety and tradition. It was horrifying for people to imagine that in such a “proper” society that men would be holed up in trenches, buried in the dirt and suffering from an number of filth-borne diseases. Worse yet, it seemed as though the ideas of the Romantic era about the beauty and wisdom of nature were being turned upside down with new inventions specific to the First World War such as chemical weapons, tanks, and the giant machine guns mentioned above. In the space of four short years, 1914-1918, all of these ideas about the inherent “good” inside of human beings had been destroyed and what was remaining to replace this? Only the grotesque and twistedwords of a war-ravaged poet who finally understands that all of the literature, art, and knowledge in the course of Western history was a sham—that it was an elaborate farce and that by no means should young men be instructed in the idea that it is truly “decorous” to die for one’s country. Rather, the deaths he depicts are far from the ideas of heroes like Agamemnon or Achilles, far even from those represented in novels where the young gallant hero goes off to fight a war and never returns. The man that is the victim of the gas attack in Owen’s poem suffers like hell, “