Dying in Vain
Born in 1893, Wilfred Owen volunteered for the British army in 1915 and was sent to Europe after completing officers’ training. His service on the Western Front was traumatic – he was injured several times and eventually sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recuperate from shell shock. Here he met fellow patient Siegfried Sassoon, a British Jewish poet. Their friendship produced some of World War I’s most powerful poetry. Although he could have stayed behind after his recovery, Owen returned to the front. With his rifle in one hand and his pen in the other, he tirelessly attacked the war’s futility and horror. He fell in November 1918, in the last week of the war, and his family received the news on Armistice Day.
Dulce et Decorum Est is Owen’s most famous poem. Based on a sonnet by the Roman poet Horace, it was written while Owen was hospitalized. Its Latin title was inscribed on the chapel gate of the famous Sandhurst Military Academy, where Britain’s elite army officers trained. With typical irony, Owen dedicated the poem to Jessie Pope, whose patriotic verse urged youngsters to serve their country.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
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.