Discuss the Ways in which Owen conveys the Loss of Human Dignity in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’


During the World War One, many terrible, inhumane events took place which resulted in the reduction of people’s status as human beings - making people lose their sense of self-value and pride. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, is on the topic of war and investigates and conveys the loss of human dignity. The poem has a persona who addresses the reader directly. This in itself is effective in the involvement of the reader and helps significantly in conveying the loss of human dignity in times of war.


‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, focuses mainly on the physical suffering of the soldier persona who is telling the story as well as his friends, and the experiences which the regiment went through, not least of which was seeing a comrade gassed to death. The main message of the poem is a warning to the public about telling ‘with such high zest…The Old Lie’, and how war was not the least bit like they imagined.


‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has four stanzas, two of which have the same number of lines (eight) and rhyming pattern, but the middle two stanzas are in fact one with a break before the second-last line. The short stanza of two lines looks irregular and stresses the impression the event made on the writer. This impression is one of emotional trauma and horror at the events that had come to pass: an effective demonstration of the loss of human dignity.


‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ focuses on inhumanity during wartime through the use of imagery and graphic descriptions from the persona. The poem first concentrates more on the physical suffering of the regiment than anything else, the persona relays how the men were all ‘bent double, like old beggars under sacks’. The choice of words creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind, and there is no subtlety - the line conveys the loss of dignity all too clearly. The people fighting the war are meant to be strong young men but the war seems to have aged them terribly.


The soldiers were ‘knock-kneed, coughing like hags’, a vivid image which implies that they did not care any longer what they looked like, much less acted like and they in fact cared only about getting to their ‘distant rest’. This creates the effect of single-minded animals plodding along, in clear contrast to the image of gallant war heroes that had been used to cajole young men into enlisting in the army. The use of ‘trudge’ hints that they are not only trudging to their base for a brief respite from fighting but perhaps are trudging slowly to their deaths.


Due to the fact that Owen’s poem describes events that had already taken place, and that he himself had experienced, he is able to include explicitly realistic images of the conditions the soldiers faced; he says that ‘all went lame, all blind’. Robbed of their senses through fatigue or sustaining injuries, the soldiers are nothing more than a straggling line of dependent elderly people, in fact ‘lame’ even suggests that they are little better than animals. The mention of ‘all’ in the line was also quite significant in suggesting that nobody, whether they wanted to or not, could escape from the repercussions of the war.


In some parts of the poem, the soldiers are made to seem like a group of empty shells, or programmed automatons, who were ‘deaf even to the hoots of gas-shells dropping’, and hence unable, or simply too fatigued to realize that they were in danger. It is almost as though they are passive, emotionless beings that have seen too much to feel anything anymore, even when put into a potentially fatal circumstance.


The intensely painful death that the gassed soldier experiences is conveyed through the image of being ‘like a man in fire or lime’ where the use of simple similes that the reader can readily grasp helps to make real the horrors of war to the audience at home. The use of ‘lime’, with its bleach-like, burning, alkaline connotations is the substance used to cover dead bodies when they are buried in mass graves to hide the smell of decomposition and quickly disintegrate the corpses so as to prevent the spread of disease. This perhaps foreshadows not only the death of the soldier but also his later brutal and inhuman treatment as he is ‘flung’ into a wagon still ‘writhing’ in his death throes perhaps only to be later buried in a mass grave, unidentified and ignominious along with all the other soldiers who entered the war expecting a noble death but were instead awarded with treatment no better than that granted to an animal carcass.


The two-line stanza stands alone and accentuates the impression the gassed man made on the writer: ‘he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’ The triad here emphasises the impression of a desperate plea for help, a plea so moving that in the writer’s ‘smothering dreams’, ‘before his helpless sight’, he still sees the dying man. This powerful moment makes the reader acutely aware of the horror that many soldiers had to face as they watched their fellows die, instinctively wanting to help their comrades but unable to do anything except stand there like an animal caught in the glare of headlights.


The use of the Latin motto ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ is particularly effective as at the time the poem was written, the public would have known what it meant, and would have expected a poem praising war. The dashing of these expectations as the reader reads the poem powerfully conveys the loss of human dignity in wartime; the reader is told the ‘Lie’ that they have always believed and then the illusion is stripped from them. The poem ends with the Latin word ‘mori’, meaning ‘to die’, and lends an ominous note to an already grave poem.


Essentially, the poem encompasses the atrocities of war and the loss of human dignity endured by the soldiers who experienced the horrific conditions on the battlefield. However, a more significant loss of human dignity is hinted at by the Latin title and final line, a motto which fuelled the hopes of ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’, making fools of them as they plunged headlong into the front lines of battle not realizing the truth until it was too late. The ultimate indignity is that these soldiers were lead to their deaths like fools and even had a hand in their own damnation as they enlisted of their own free will.


‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a powerful poem which expresses the inhumanity of war and the loss of human dignity resulting from the horrific suffering experienced by the soldiers on the front lines. Owen’s personal experience of war and his attempt to tell his story from a perspective that contradicted the common view of his time makes his poem moving and poignant, a pathos only added to by his own tragic death shortly before less than a week before the end of the war. As a result, Owen’s poem thoroughly convinces the reader of the loss of human dignity caused by war.