Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Poetry of Wartime

Today we read some of the poetry of World War I in British Literature.

I don't know about you, but I remember the first time I ever read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est." I was in the eleventh grade. We were in Dr. Falzarano's English Lit class at Episcopal, and I sat in the front seat of the second row in that classroom and felt like I was suffocating as I watched a man suffer and slowly die from poison gas inhalation.

For today's class, we began by discussing "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier," and we talked about the idea of war as something by which men gain glory and honor. Then we looked at Siegfried Sassoon's "They" and contrasted that more positive view to the more bitter, immediate viewpoint taken by Sassoon and other World War I poets. That was the buildup. We spent the last 20 minutes of class reading "Dulce Et Decorum Est." I don't know if they were as revulsed and disturbed as I was the first time I read this poem--for all I know, they were perfecting the art of sleeping with eyes open--but there were no whisperings or sidelong looks or anything of the typical afternoon classroom behavior.

Wilfred Owen was a tutor when he joined the military in 1916, and his dream was to be a poet. He certainly had the gift; sadly, he died at the age of 25 on November 4, 1917--just seven days before the Armistice.

The poem for which he is most famous, "Dulce Et Decorum Est," gets its title from Horace, who wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," or "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
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 floundering 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.

(October 1917-March 1918)

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