April 04, 2008

Veronika Walker


Professor LaBelle

4 April 2008

An Explication and Discussion on Wildred Owen’s Masterpiece:

Dulce et Decorum Est

There are rules that every poet keeps in mind: the use of alliteration, cacophony, assonance and consonance, rhythm, the list continues. Fiction writers, though they have more leeway, also have rules they must structure their work around, like point of view, setting, diction, and tone. Though “rules” often seem constrictive, the greatest poets and authors know how to bend these rules to their greatest advantage, seamlessly drawing their readers into their narrative without actually pointing to the rules followed. Anyone who can do so as beautifully as Wilfred Owen is a literary genius.

Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est is more than a simple poem. It is an entire story, filled with conflict, drama, emotion, and theme. By blending the worlds of poetry and story writing, Owen has created a timeless piece that demonstrates how rules – though perhaps a bit daunting – can be used quite seamlessly to present beautiful, powerful works of art. Owen even “breaks” a few rules himself; for instance, poetry, unlike fiction, is simply meant “to be.” Rarely does it leave us with a message or moral to take home; it is often written for pure enjoyment of the language and how the words flow together, making a pleasing audio experience. Also, poetry often does not have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, as is necessary for most fiction (though there are some exceptions). Yet Owen provides a solid structure to the poem, breaking it down into a very easy-to-follow narrative. And finally, Owen also provides the core elements of a basic story: setting, character, and conflict. Rarely do these elements exist in such vivid form in poetry. There are exceptions, of course, but they are quite few. (Those who do are considered amongst the greatest poets themselves.) Owen, however, doesn’t let these key elements of fiction stop him from inserting them into his poem. In fact, he blends these elements and those of good poetry together, allowing his powerful message come to life: War is neither glorious, nor an honor.

His first task is to establish a setting. This is brilliantly done in the very opening lines of the poem: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…” (1-2). Already, the reader has a setting to fall back on, a place, time, and situation. Though the speaker is not yet identified, it is obvious that he is in a difficult situation. The environment around him and his comrades is dreary, muddy, and damp, as evidenced by their physical distress. This, as Owen knows, is enough to “hook” the readers, to provide enough intrigue to keep the readers’ interest piqued. Having now hooked the reader, he is able to develop the setting even more as he continues: “Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots / But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue…” (5-7). This is where the main character (an element usually identified only with fiction, and thus unique in poetry) is wholly identified: it is now evident that he and his companions are soldiers of war, marching towards some unknown destination. By using elements connotative with storytelling, not poetry, Owen has successfully begun his poem with setting, situation, and intrigue. He sets up a scene, identifies characters, and, presumably, is about to give a dynamic conflict for these characters to go through.

And he wastes no time in doing so. Owen’s narrator – with a brilliant use of alliteration on the author’s part – suddenly shifts from merely relating his tale to being in the moment, narrating events as they happen. The story shifts from potential danger to immediate urgency in one simple, powerful command: “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” (9). Immediately the soldiers are in danger, and the readers suddenly see characters active and emotional as they would in a work of fiction. Conflict is essential to any story, whether poetical or not, and Owen introduces it quickly, urgently, and graphically. The cacophony (a strong poetical element) of the hard g, q, and c in the second stanza points to the physical noise of men “fitting the clumsy helmets just in time” and the emotional desperation of the soldiers as they see their unfortunate comrade choking to death: “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. / In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (13-16). Solid poetical language tells the story of these soldiers. Owen has been able to combine the best of both worlds into something horribly graphic and visual.

A final, but key, element of a typical short story that Owen inserts into his poem is that of theme, a “moral of the story.” Most poems don’t do this; they are simply meant to be works of lingual art, not offering criticism or a moral that readers are left analyzing. Owen, however, decides to bend this “rule,” and give his readers something to chew on. His soldier narrator, remembering the horrors of seeing “the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin…” (19-20), almost angrily gives his readers a “lesson” to take away from the narrative. He offers them the simple truth of his profession: soldiers are paid killers who are themselves murdered in horrendous and brutal ways. He diffuses the lie that war is glorious, and begs the reader to not fill their children’s heads with the idea that war is honorable, when in reality it is the exact opposite. “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace…/ my friend,” he says, “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 [it is sweet and right to die for your country]” (17, 25-28).

With such dynamic characters, experienced handling of poetical elements, and perhaps a passionate desire to offer the world a different kind of poetry, Wilfred Owen wrote a powerful, dynamic poem that questions the “rules” of story and poetry writing, and offers instead a powerful poem created with storytelling nuances. There may, indeed, be rules in the writing world, but the best part of it is that rules can be broken, and when done so with as professional and talented a mind as Owen’s, it can be done beautifully.