What impression is created of war by Owen in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est?



“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” This statement gives the impression that war is exciting and fun but this is very different from the impression portrayed by Owen in the rest of the poem. Owen wrote this poem when he returned from fighting in France. He had received firsthand experience of how life was for the soldiers in World War 1 and decided to share this knowledge with the public. He was encouraged by his close friend, Siegfried Sassoon, but when he returned to war shortly after being released from hospital, and writing this poem, he was killed while leading his men across Sambre Canal in Northern France. It was after his death that the interest in his poetry escalated. This poem is focused on the betrayal of the soldiers by the people back home and how war is not a glorious game. The impression depicted in the first stanza is of the horrific conditions the soldiers are forced to live in and the poem continues to explain how the war is inescapable, physically and mentally.


Owen conveys an impression of the horrific living conditions of the soldiers in the trenches through his depiction of the men as “blood-shod”. This implies that they are wearing boots of blood as they have “lost their boots”.  This is strong imagery which creates a vivid mental image of the poor, weak men.  This contrast between our expectations and the reality accentuates the horrific conditions of the soldier’s surroundings. This is emphasised by the “sludge” and how the soldiers “trudge”.  Both these words have the udge sound at the end giving them a dull, heavy feel that could personify the soldier’s mood. This could also be used to depict the surroundings. The soft s in sludge contrasts with the harsh dg sound creating a duller, more sinister atmosphere. The connotations of the word sludge are dirt and darkness which we then associate with the trenches and the living conditions of the men. Furthermore the word trudge conveys the “fatigue” of the soldiers and evokes the feeling of the lack of sleep the soldiers must have endured in the trenches. This allows the readers thoughts to be drawn to why they are tired which emphasises the horrific conditions in the trenches. Furthermore, Owen conveys the monotony of the soldier’s lives through the list effect of the first few lines of the first stanza.  This implies the soldier’s lives are like this and that every day is the same as the last. This also shows how the war is inescapable for the soldiers as they must continue fighting. This is accentuated by the regular, alternating rhyme scheme. This almost sounds like the soldiers are marching and enforces how monotonous the lives of the soldiers, during the war, have become. Finally, Owen portrays them as “lame”. This word has animalistic connotations and we think of the men as weak and also diseased. Animals live in horrific conditions for our standards and this could have reflected on the soldier’s behaviour.


Another impression created by Owen is the treatment of the soldiers during the war. Not only are the conditions depicted as horrific, the soldiers have been badly treated as well. They “marched asleep” while they “limped”. The soldiers are literally too tired to continue and are being forced to walk home barefoot. Also “marched” and “asleep” contrast as marching has connotations of the soldiers being fit, healthy and energetic and so by contrasting this with “asleep” the persona is undermining the public stereotypical image of the soldiers. This image is replaced by the image of weary men, mistreated and alone after war. Furthermore the soldiers are portrayed as “bent double” and “knock-kneed”. This depicts the soldier’s lack of pride and glory and changes the image of stereotypical soldiers again. The harsh consonants in “bent double” convey that the soldiers are beaten down and suffering after defeat and weakness in war. These words are foregrounded and so emphasise the soldier’s lack of pride. The alliteration and harsh consonants of “knock-kneed” also represent the harsh conditions the men have been living in and how they have returned from war without pride or glory. Furthermore, the soldiers are portrayed as “old beggars” and are “coughing like hags”. This conveys to the reader that the soldiers have reduced to the lowest forms of humanity by the war. This emphasises the fact that they have lost all their pride during the war. Equally, the gassed soldier is portrayed as “a man in fire”. This is a very visual image and conveys to the reader that pain being felt by not only the dying soldier but also the helpless persona. This evokes pathos from the people at home. In addition, the strong soldier is being portrayed as a simple man, emphasising the lack of pride he is experiencing after time at war.


Furthermore, Owen creates an impression of the horrific conditions the soldiers are living in by portraying the equipment as old and faulty. The soldiers are “fumbling” and “stumbling” as they put the helmets on. This shows that the men are as “clumsy” as the helmets that they are trying to put on. The soldiers are panicking and so as they struggle to put on the helmets, they make mistakes. This increases the speed which draws the reader in and exaggerates how crucial it is that they get the helmets on in time. The reader can feel the exhilaration. Furthermore, the soldiers are desperate which depicts the soldiers as weak and powerless. In addition, the helmets have “misty panes” which superficially conveys that the helmets are old and have been used before. These both evoke pathos which makes the reader feel sorry for the soldiers and emphasises how bad the equipment is. The alternative reading for this phrase is interesting. It gives a sense of separation which could be between the persona and his fellow soldier or could be between the persona and his humanity including his home. This sense of distance is oppressing and makes the horrific conditions of the war seem physically inescapable.


The death in war is depicted by Owen as slow and painful. This impression emphasises the fact that there is no glory or honour in fighting the war. The dying soldier is repeatedly described as “drowning”. This has connotations of being slow and painful already on a superficial level especially when repeated several times. When used in the triad “guttering, choking, drowning” at the end of the third stanza, we get the impression that the gas attack is painful but also that the death has no honour involved like there is no honour in drowning. The repetition of the word only emphasises this point. Moreover, the gassed soldier is “gargling”. This is easy to understand for the people at home. It also uses very strong visual imagery as the man is gargling on his own blood. The fact that his blood is killing him, the liquid that should keep him alive, makes his death less honourable. He is killing himself and has not died to save his country. Finally, the fast panicky start to the second stanza contrasts with the slow painful death of the soldier. This contrast makes both of the events seem more extreme. The gas attack seems quicker and this portrays that the war is like this as well. It conveys that war happens so quickly you can’t see what is happening until it is too late and this contributes to the idea that there is no honour or glory in war. In addition, the death of the soldier seems much slower and gives Owen time to fully depict how ignoble the soldiers death really is. We feel more involved in the soldier’s death, almost to the point where the reader feels responsible. This relates to the impression that Owen is trying to portray to the public that the glory of war is a lie and that the public should feel responsible.


Another impression created by Owen is that the memories of the war are inescapable. His “smothering dreams” are “haunting” him. The literal meaning of these sentences is enough to show us that the persona is having dreams or nightmares about the war. The word “smothering” is used to describe the dreams. This implies that the dreams are inescapable and that in some ways they are killing him by suffocation. Suffocation portrays that the dreams are killing him slowly and painfully and that he can’t escape them. This is a very ignoble way to die. This conveys to the reader how overwhelming these dreams must be. In addition, the persona says that “in all my dreams” which suggests that the image he is going to or has already portrayed was very visual. The use of the word “all” once again implies that the image and memory are inescapable. Furthermore, the persona emphasises that the memories are inescapable with the use of enjambment. The lines are long, without commas at the end, which indicates the inescapability of the soldiers. The memories could continue like the lines of the poem.


The inescapability of the guilt is another impression depicted by Owen. Through his “helpless sight”, he sees the dying soldier. He has been given a choice between his own life and the life of his fellow soldier, possibly even a friend and is frozen trying to choose. He can’t save the other soldier without taking off his helmet and killing himself. This time freeze could be used to show his guilt as he chose himself over the other soldier. Furthermore the persona depicts the light as “thick” and sees through “misty panes”. These convey to the reader a sense of separation between the persona and the dying soldier. It shows that he feels cut off from the friend and is unable to help. In the persona’s mind, they are far apart although they are physically close together. This distance could have been generated by the persona to try and lessen the feeling of guilt. Moreover, the gassed soldier “plunges” at the persona. The literal meaning of this is that the soldier is pleading with the persona and desperately asking for help. The figurative meaning of this could suggest that the persona feels guilt. The soldier is not attacking him but this word could have violent connotations. The persona sees the soldier coming back for revenge in his mind which is a sign of his guilt.


Owen conveys the impression that the memories and emotions from the war ruin the soldier’s lives through the depiction of them as “blind”. Although the literal meaning of this word is that they can’t see and that this is involuntary, the metaphorical meaning is a contradiction as it could be that the men don’t want to see the horrific events occurring around them. The contradiction emphasises how horrific the surroundings are and also that the men have been forced to fight. This is accentuated by the use of words related to hell such as “vile” and “devil”. This is contrasted with the “innocent” soldiers to emphasise the point the persona is trying to express. This is a sign that he thinks the soldiers have committed terrible crimes and deserve to go to hell. It has an alternative meaning as well as Owen could be saying that the “innocent” soldiers fighting in the war are already in hell.


Owen expresses the impression of the lack of guilt of the people at home therefore contrasting it to the extreme guilt felt by the soldiers. This emphasises how different the soldiers are to the recruiters and evokes pathos for the soldiers while making us feel some of Owens anger towards the recruiters.  The reader is directly addressed by the use of “you” but at the same time the persona is addressing the recruiters indirectly. This word allows a flow of anger and bitterness through from the persona and accuses the public of all the terrible things that happen to the soldiers during the war. The persona refers to the reader as “my friend”. Although these words should make the reader feel included in the soldiers lives instead it accuses the public of sending soldiers to die. The bitterness and anger attached to this word give it a sarcastic tone. This contrasts with the affectionate words to show us that we are in fact the enemies of the soldiers and we have betrayed them. Similarly the persona uses a change of perspective between the third and fourth stanza to accuse the reader and the recruiters. By separating the reader from the soldiers, Owen conveys to the reader that they still have a choice between the lie of war and the truth that war is not good. The entire poem tries to convince the people at home to choose the truth.


One of the main impressions depicted by Owen is that the glory and honour associated with war is a lie. The soldiers want “desperate glory” which literally means that they want glory. This is the superficial meaning of this phrase. The word “desperate” is used with a cynical tone to express that there is no honour or glory when fighting in the war. This also shows us the betrayal as the soldiers as they have been lied to. Furthermore, the personification of “Lie” gives it human connotations and emotions. It has been capitalised and is therefore a proper name. It is as if the lie itself has tricked the soldiers into going to war. The lie is continued by humans, passed down from generation to generation, and in this way Owen accuses everyone of lying to the soldiers. Similarly, the final line of the poem “Pro patria mori” tells the reader many things. It is a short definite ending to the poem and could therefore represent the soldier’s lives as they have been cut short. This could imply that the lives have been ended before they should have. Death in Latin is “mori” and this is the final word of the poem. This word accuses the reader and the recruiters of the deaths in the war. In addition, this section has been separated from the first part of the “Lie” and so therefore Owen is separating honour from dying for your country.


All of the important impressions given in this poem can be summed up in the final line. Said with the bitterness and anger that is used throughout the poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” gives us an overall view of what Owen is trying to say. The honour and glory associated with war are a lie. It is written in Latin, an old language that would not be understood by many uneducated people at home. Therefore the Latin could represent the recruiters and government members, the educated people, who sent the soldiers away to war. In this way, Owen is blaming the war and the deaths of many soldiers, on the recruiters but also on the people at home for believing their lies. The harsh consonants in “dulce et decorum” depict the bitterness that Owen is feeling and that is portrayed throughout the poem especially in the final stanza.