Wednesday, 29 September 2010

David Cameron & 'Dulce et Decorum Est'

David Cameron's favourite poem, he tells the Daily Mail today, is Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. Cameron remembers reading Owen's poems for the first time: 'For me, they were literally [sic] an eye-opener and I still find them moving when I read them again today.'

The comments below the article are filled with righteous anger: 'How can a warmonger like Cameron have a favourite anti-war poem?' Leaving aside the obvious retorts --- that it is possible to admire a poem while disagreeing with its politics, or that it is possible to think that Iraq is a just war and that the Great War was not --- this overlooks the poet's contradictions. Owen declared himself a 'conscientious objector with a very seared conscience', his rhetorical flourish camouflaging the emptiness of the phrase. He was not a conscientious objector of any kind.

What is also overlooked is the unsettled complexity of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' itself. To call it an anti-war poem is to state a damagingly partial truth. We might say, more accurately, that it is an anti-pro-war poem. It assaults the rhetoric of the jingoists; it attempts to lay bare the suffering of war; but it does not advocate pacifism or a ceasefire. Its first subject is the problem of representation. Given that language can convey lies about war (vide Jessie Pope, Horace, etc.), what language is capable of conveying the truth? Does such a language even exist? And in this context, what --- said jesting Pilate --- is truth? Claiming that only witnesses can know the reality of war, his poetry must admit its own failure: despite the nightmare scenes described, we cannot share the poet's knowledge. At the same time, Owen's poetry is reluctant to accept that most of the fighting men, fellow witnesses though they were, drew very different conclusions about the necessity of the war.

I hope to return to 'Dulce et Decorum Est', and the reasons why its popularity has grown out of all proportion to its merits, in the coming months.

Update: see here for my account of 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.


  1. Go for it Tim! Did you know him personally? Or are you just guessing? You could also say it is a comment on the absurdity of the needless waste of life and suffering of fellow men. In 1918 I am sure his comments even slightly "anti-pro-war" were highly inflammatory to the establishment and also contrary to the general belief that the "boys were doing there bit"

  2. Well I think anyone, even Cameron, is entitled to have a favourite war poem. And who couldn't select this poem of Wilfred Owen's - it is in a class of it's own and touches every heart. A good article here and interesting comments. Thanks for sharing.