Death by Patriotism
Literature is a subject with many genres and ways to express oneself. Anything could be classified as literature such as books, newspapers, or magazines. Poetry is the most common way people express themselves through literature because people can write poetry verses with subliminal messages that portray they way they are feeling at a given time. Wilfred Owen uses his poem Dulce et Decorum Est to describe his feelings and experiences in World War 1, which has a theme of death and human suffering.
Owens poem, describing the death of a soldier caught in a gas attack, is at once a realistic portrait of the brutality of war and a lesson in morality to those who would idealize patriotic duty.
Death and human suffering, on a purely physical plane, are abundant throughout the poem. The first stanza depicts the horrors of the war on the human body, even for those lucky enough to survive their tour of duty. It takes young, healthy, empowered men and turns them, metaphorically, into aged men who are haunted from their experiences for the rest of their lives. War has taken such a physical price on those asked to wage it that they are literally transformed with exhaustion, unable to appreciate the deadly reality surrounding them. They are, in Owens words, Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind(1074). The remaining lines of the poem focus on the horrific death of one young man caught in the devastating fumes of mustard gas. Owens use of water imagery makes this scene uncomfortable to witness, as the soldiers death is compared to a drowning. He is described as floundring(1075), guttering(1075), and choking(1075). Owen twice uses the very word drowning(1075).
While the physical pain is noteworthy, the death of the soldier is rivaled by the emotional suffering present in the poem. The men themselves face the most primitive of emotions, fear. First, Owen repeats the word gas at the beginning of the second stanza, the capitalization of all three letters in its second usage clearly indicates a heightened sense of panic. Interestingly, while the impact of the poem in no small measure comes from the sincere nature of its witness, the narrator does not need to exaggerate the account with extravagant punctuation. The images speak for themselves. It is only here, as the reader hears the dialogue of the soldiers, that we see the use of exclamation points. This combined with the previously mentioned use of capitalization serves to convey a strong emotional investment. The true emotional impact, though, is on the solitary soldier. It is not, however, to be focused on the dying man, whose terrified confusion can easily be imagined in the white eyes writhing in his face(1075). It is on the man condemned to replay this grisly scene again and again in his tortured sleep. The speaker in Dulce et Decorum Est, so clearly identifiable as Owen himself, is forever plagued with visions of his comrades demise, evidenced by lines 15-16: In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning(1075). Just as there was nothing either man could do to prevent the gas from killing the soldier once he has inhaled the toxic fumes, the guilt-stricken speaker seems equally incapable of forgetting what he has seen in surviving the attack. The soldiers literal death suffocation by froth-corrupted lungs(1075) is symbolically preserved in the speakers smothering dreams(1075).
War confronted Owen with reality, however, these same horrible realities coincide with the destructive force the war had on all who fought it. For Owen, the war became a symbol for the cruelty of human nature. The last stanza, then, represents for the speaker a sacrifice, with the doomed soldiers face His hanging face like a devils sick of sin(1075). The death is obscene, compared to vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues(1075). These comparisons are not those of the man who is dying, but instead of the man left to remember the death. In the end, it is the poets innocence, his tongue, which has been violated. It is his responsibility to at once reveal the ugly truth of war to the world, and warn others of the danger of idealizing with this truth. In one stanza Owen connects the guilt a surviving soldier feels when his brother-in-arms falls with the guilt others should feel who either ignore or willfully dismiss the truth of war.
Dulce et Decorum Est is a poem that we as a society can really relate to because we are a country at war. Our fellow Americans are over seas fighting a war seeing and experiencing situations that are very similar to those Owen describes in his poem. Owen uses poetry to portray the grisly scenes of war just as many people use poetry to express their experiences or feelings. For a long time to come poetry will be the preferred way for many people to describe their inner most feelings.