Thursday, 28 October 2010

Wilfred Owen: 'Dulce et Decorum Est'

I mentioned in a previous blogpost that the popularity of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' has grown out of all proportion to its merits, and I promised to suggest reasons why that should have happened. The author of 'Miners' (which I have called 'one of the most politically radical poems of [the] age'), 'Futility', 'Strange Meeting' and 'Exposure' is, without question, a major poet. Despite sharing some of his irritation, I don't side with a scholar such as Dan Todman, who has blamed Owen for contributing to the public's distorted understanding of the War: Owen, Dan says, is 'over-rated'. I would rather argue that the distortions come from the reception of his work, and in particular from the valorising of certain poems for political reasons, at the expense of others. The poet who welcomes the War as an opportunity to effect a little useful weeding; the poet who describes the 'exultation' of going over the top and looking back to see the ground 'all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies'; the poet who swears that he will revenge himself against the Germans ('I, Owen, will repay'); the poet who writes with homoerotic passion of exposed and injured flesh; this is not the poet on whom so many school curricula linger.

What, then, explains the pre-eminence of 'Dulce et Decorum Est'? First, it meets one kind of propaganda with an equal and opposite kind. Horace's line is dismissed as 'The old Lie'. Allowing for no complexity, Owen himself is guilty of telling something less than the whole truth: dying for one's country can sometimes seem sweet and decorous, and was described as such by many of his contemporaries. Yet such is the dominance of a particular account of the War that the soldiers at the Front are not permitted to have held different views; or if they did, they were merely fooled by the establishment's discourse. Owen's message is clear and, given what the poem has previously chosen to show us, irrefutable. Outflanked because of our lack of credentials, we do not want to seem like that 'certain poetess', Jessie Pope, whose Horatian delight in battle is founded on ignorance. Who are we to take issue with the suffering soldier-poet about the truth of war?

Owen promises his reader the opportunity to join him as a witness. 'If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in', he writes, and he goes on to describe the scene so that we can see it for ourselves. The poem becomes the smothering dream from which, after our awakening, we can authoritatively dismiss Horace's old Lie. Even while making clear that we can never experience what he has experienced, Owen takes advantage of our desire to understand. We are not like Jessie Pope. We share the poet's pain. When he suddenly interjects, 'Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!', it is as though he is including his male readers in the danger. Poetesses cannot follow him there.

Yet what if we resist those strategies? What if we do not accept the final stanza so passively?

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.

This is slack writing. The description of the gassed soldier betrays Owen's reliance on mood-music. We accept that atrocity is being described, and we are expected to become suitably compliant in our appalled response. We take the poet's word for it, because it would be the ultimate act of bad faith to respond differently. Yet bad faith is exactly the problem. Owen fails because his language is too manipulative. As his master, Keats, famously put it, 'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.'

In the final stanza of 'Dulce et Decorum Est', Owen becomes less the reporter and more the propagandist. He reaches for stock images of evil and suffering --- the devil, cancer --- without stopping to consider the appropriateness of the metaphor. What does a devil sick of sin look like? I don't see this image. Cancer is obscene, and so is horrific death in war, but beyond that the simile breaks down instantly: cancer is slow, and death in battle is sudden; cancer is natural, whereas death in battle represents man's inhumanity to man. Far from increasing or conveying the obscenity of the scene, the comparison with cancer only obfuscates. It is a reflex gesture. As for 'innocent tongues', would the cud be any less bitter on other kinds of tongue?

Seamus Heaney has written of his experiences in teaching this poem that 'it seems like an impertinence when we begin [...] to make pejorative critical remarks about the excessively vehement adjectives and nouns... Yet there was obviously an immense disparity between the nit-picking criticism I was conducting on the poem and the heavy price, in terms of emotional and physical suffering, the poet paid in order to bring it into being.' The appeal to, and of, the metatext---that originating event described by the poem---is the reason why war poetry has been simultaneously celebrated and ghettoised. Although it has reached far beyond the poetry-reading coteries, war poetry has always been viewed with suspicion by those canon-forming poets and scholars who detect just this kind of special pleading. As Philip Larkin admitted, 'the temporal accidents of [Owen's] lifetime... make independent critical assessment so difficult.'

'Dulce et Decorum Est' is an uneven poem for reasons which bear our scrutiny. To say so is, in a minor way, to speak the truth to power. There is nothing 'nit-picking' about that. It is tempting to stay silent when a poem supports our prejudices, or when to challenge it would be to challenge our own assumptions. But if we care about Owen's work, and the work of other war poets, then we might at least pay the compliment of questioning it, however uncomfortable that may make us feel.


  1. "Poetesses cannot follow him there." Maybe not Jessie Pope - but didn't Owen eliminate her from his final draft?

    In my own experience, college students of either sex are equally appalled and, it seems, quite as able to imagine the scene sufficiently. Owen's words - mood-music and all - make sure of that.

    There are several reasons for the poem's popularity. The least defensible one, I think, is the hopeful idea that Owen is denouncing war. All he's doing is reporting - graphically - that death from enemy action is not pretty, a message the world of verse was not eager to be reminded of. Who else used the word "cancer" in its literal sense in English poetry before this?

    (The idea that battlefield death is necessarily "sudden" is, of course, another artifact of sentimentality. I theorize that the poor slob choking on his own vomit while his lungs were being scalded out thought - to the extent that he could think at all at that point -that it was taking quite long enough.)

    Finally, the seemingly requisite use of the word "homoerotic" in regard to Owen's feelings or poetry seems to me to be chiefly tendentious in origin. Whether it's meant in either the narrow Freudian sense or the popular genital sense, it seems to suggest that if Owen had seen women suffering in the same way, he couldn't have written about it with such "passion." That's not only unprovable; I think it says more about the critics than it says about Wilfred Owen!

  2. What's that See-Shelleyan quote about breaking butterflies on a wheel? (Heaney's right, here, to ask, Why bother?) And "homoerotic"? Where? I don't much like this poem ("slack writing," yes), but I believe you are over-projecting the poet's intentions. What if it's all just experientially descriptive, resulting in a logical conclusion--and not palpably designed after all? (As though Keats didn't choose his descriptions cannily and carefully.) By the same token, I think you are reading way too much into that loaded word cancer. All the poet says is that it is "obscene"; there's no hint of any of your other rigorous accusations. One might as readily state that the word calls up visions of cigarettes, crabs, wrist bracelets, and surgical excisions. Chacun a son gout. And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  3. Ah, good. Thank you, both. I would have been disappointed if no one had resisted my reading!

    I didn't say that 'Dulce et Decorum Est' is homoerotic. I specifically implied that it wasn't. I said that other of Owen's poems, less popular but no less important, are often homoerotic. Read 'I saw his round mouth's crimson', for example, or 'Greater Love'.

    I have no view on how or whether Owen might have written about women suffering. The fact is that he didn't write about women suffering. If this turns into a debate about whether Owen was gay, I'm happy to opt out. I've read the biographies and the letters, the coded comments to his mother, the story of how his brother destroyed his journals to protect his reputation, the views of people who knew him (e.g. Sassoon), etc. All the evidence points in one direction. But I'm concerned with the poetry, much of which does seem to me to have a homoerotic impulse. If that says something about me rather than Owen, so be it. That same accusation could be made, perhaps even more pointedly, against anyone who refused to acknowledge that impulse in Owen's work.

    If college students are imagining the scene in 'Dulce et Decorum Est' sufficiently, in my view they are doing so despite the final stanza, not because of it. (What does a devil sick of sin look like?) They are well aware of the narrow range of acceptable responses to the First World War, and there is considerable pressure to conform to those responses.

    Ed --- I don't think that poetic simile works in the way that you suggest. But even if it does, you are interpreting 'Obscene as cancer' as 'Obscene as something which is really really obscene, perhaps the most obscene thing I can think of, but not like that thing in any other way'. That seems to me to be a bad simile.

    As for Jonathan's point that death in battle isn't always sudden... Yes, point taken, but I was comparing it to death by cancer. The 'world of verse' already knew that death by enemy action wasn't pretty. This had been done before, by Kipling and Hardy during the Boer War, and (as Cynthia Wachtell shows in her recent monograph) by many poets of the American Civil War. Most obviously and influentially, it had been done by Homer. William Golding remarks that no WW1 poet matched Homer's image of the spear buried in the heart of the dying warrior and quivering from the failing heartbeats.

    Ed --- Heaney doesn't quite say 'Why bother?' It's more like, 'What right do we have?' To what extent can we talk about this poem, with its overwhelming metatext, in the same way that we would talk about other kinds of poem? I try to answer that, briefly, at the end of the blogpost.

  4. Isn't the 'devil sick of sin' image one of unimaginable surfeit? What is it that would push a devil (the Devil?) to become sick of sin? I think the clash comes there - Owen invites us to witness alongside him but it's impossible for us to do so because we just can't see what he sees.

    I don't read this as overly manipulative. I think it all hinges on the 'If'. 'If [we] too could pace'... but we can't and, for me, therein lies the central paradox of Owen's poetry: we can't understand war if we're not there but still he writes, urging us to 'pace' and 'watch'. It's like in his 'Preface', I think, where he tells us that the poems are 'in no sense consolatory' but I think they are: if not to others, then at least to him.

  5. When first published, this was one of the angriest poems in English literature. Why was Owen so angry? Surely not because mustard gas had thwarted his designs on that boyish private.

    Owen was angry mainly because he’d suffered in a seemingly endless slaughter, he’d lost his romantic idealism (fortunately), his friends had been mangled or killed, his men – for whom he was responsible – likewise; meanwhile, poets of all sexual orientations (Jessie Pope…hmmm...) thrived by denying the actualities of those experiences, even to themselves.

    Owen knew that from 1915 death had a brand-new face, one known previously, perhaps, to only a handful of unfortunates in the chemical industry. The last thing we need is new, man-made forms of mass death, and Owen zeroes in on death by gas as the absolute and foreboding antithesis of the bland and widely quoted sentiments of Horace.

    I don’t know what a devil sick of sin looks like, but I’m sure it ain’t pretty. A devil is no angel, and we are encouraged to consider just what this victim may have been doing up there at the front. (More likely trying to kill someone than reaching toward a butterfly.) So, as with the cancer simile, I give Owen a break here.

    A great poem, of its time and for all time.

  6. No one has suggested at any stage that 'Dulce et Decorum Est' has a homoerotic impulse. Your straw man is an illusion.

    Seamus Heaney: "I was also concerned with what was artistically good as well as what was generally true. And it seemed to me that 'Dulce et Decorum Est', a poem which was easy for [my students] to like, was the poem where I could engage them with the question of over-writing. 'Is Owen over-doing it here?' I would ask. 'Inside five lines we have "devil's sick of sin", "gargling", "froth-corrupted", "bitter as the cud", "vile, incurable sores". Is he not being a bit over-insistent? A bit explicit.'"

    Don't even get me started about that "cud". It's bad writing.

  7. Tim, I think you misunderstand my point, which I made in the regrettably acerbic fashion that comes so naturally. It is simply that Owen's presumed sexuality may not be as significant a factor in his war poems generally as critics seem routinely to insist. Kipling's heterosexuality, for example, is never similarly invoked in such contexts. (Or is it?)

    I agree that there is nothing homoerotic in "Dulce et Decorum Est."

  8. Well, I agree with that complaint about critics' routine insistence. There was a time, not very long ago, when it seemed like scholars would have us believe that soldiers in the trenches were too busy having sex to do any fighting. Admittedly, it can be difficult to distinguish between the homosocial and the homoerotic. The best --- most nuanced --- account that I've read is Santanu Das's study, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature.

  9. You, me, and Seamus agree on the bad writing. (Grammar, Ed! Gramercy!) But I'd still opine that, rather than the unemphatic cancer image, it's the over-written bits Heaney quotes that sink this poem for me. (I do admire the Latin of title and last two lines--owed to Horace, you might say--which Owens managed not to screw up.)

    However, it is a nice irony that any of those five overdone bits might have appeared, close to verbatim, in Heaney's own early poems. But he was too smart to pile them up so--laconic rather than excessive, letting the reader chew and digest rather than spit out. As the new old saw goes, It's all cud.

  10. I agree with Jonathan. If we are to be literal in poetry where does that leave us? Would you prefer it that he wrote 'like a devil with pointy horns.' Also to mention Owen's sexuality in the context of this poem is misplaced. I don't think this poem was written for the critics to chew over in comfortable armchairs, I'm sure some of his other work was. The imagery is laid on thick because Owen wanted this to be a smack between the eyes/sharp hit of battle hideousness that you would never forget - and in that it triumphs. Critics always dislike poems that become populist and speak to a wider audience. Also I think we all get what Owen was talking about when he uses the word cancer, what is there to possibly debate here. Death from mustard gas was not quick.

  11. I have to agree with Lisa...this poem has to be read, interpreted and dissected in the context it was written...atrocious, appalling and inhumane trench suddenly get all pompous and pretentious over it 95 years later misses the point somewhat, he was an educated man with a sensitive nature hence why I and millions of other find this poem so appealing and dare i say it brilliant! it attempts to describe something none of us can ever comprehend in a way that is so moving.

  12. Come, come, Watson! "Brilliant"? "So moving"? Horses for courses, Sir (or Ma'am, presently or Anon). "Gas! Gas!" is for me the beginning of the poem's descent, as Owen then slowly but inexorably moves from concrete images to emotionally charged phrases, taking his poem right over the top in the final stanza. ("Up, men, and over the top!") Yes, chemical warfare is appalling and inhumane, and I may lack the requisite sensitivity, but these misconceived images do not convince: eyes writhing, faces hanging, blood gargling, froth corrupting, cud gone vile! Writers and readers have learned that understatement is usually more effective--that less is more. So Owen's poem might well have stopped with lungs drowning and dreams turned haunting and horrible.

  13. I agree with Lisa. This comes across as nothing more than criticism for the sake of it.

    For example Tim criticises the phrase "a devil sick of sin" asking what this would look like. If this was Owen’s phrase he might have a point but Owen actually refers to "His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin". This seems to me a fine image - a demon has eaten too much of sin and is vomiting it up. He compares the face of the victim to that of a vomiting demon. Since a symptom of gas poisoning is the vomiting of blood this seems a wholly appropriate image. To describe the "hanging face" with bulging eyes being slowly choked to death whilst vomiting up blood and froth as devilish doesn't seem inappropriate or hard to grasp at all. It’s what happens when you choke to death from gas.

    You also say he is trying to link death from gas poisoning with death from cancer in terms of a vague comparison based on the fact that cancer is “bad”. This seems inaccurate to me. Surely he is just comparing the froth corrupted lungs of his dying soldier with those of someone suffering from lung cancer. The symptoms of late stage lung cancer and chlorine poisoning are not dissimilar – swollen neck and face, coughing blood, gurgled breathing etc.

    As for the "cud" comment. Cud is partially digested food returned to the mouth for a second chewing. Therefore for him to describe the burns which the victim would suffer on their tongue and throat in such a manner seems fine to me since it is the breathed in gas being “regurgitated” from the lungs that leads to these symptoms.

    From a purely descriptive point of view his poem is a pretty accurate as far as gas poisoning goes. He’s not using stock images, he is choosing precise and accurate images which non-military readers might understand; lung-cancer, death from hanging etc. Why should he feel the need to tone this down? Yes, it’s explicit, but I think it needs to be if the poet is to convey his feelings of disgust. No single image could revolt us enough to do this. It needs the emphasis given by multiple images laid one on top of the other for his revulsion to shine through.

    I also think that too much is being made of this being an “anti-war” poem. It’s not. It’s anti-chemical warfare, hence the opening images of the after-effects of a mustard gas attack and the later images of the chlorine gas attack. It’s all about gas.

    As for the final 4 lines and the argument that the poem is nothing more than anti-war propaganda, I disagree. It’s a statement of fact; no-one who witnessed the death of a soldier in such a manner could ever describe it as sweet and right to die for your country and talk of “glory” because there is no way that such a miserable death could ever be described as sweet or glorious.

  14. Anonymous: your comments stretch a long way to fetch (or make up) just the pieces of information which would patch the poem, and ignore all else.

    So the soldier's face is like the face of a hanging man, which is like a devil's sick of sin, and (although it's not mentioned in the poem) the devil sick of sin is vomiting because he has eaten too much sin, and by vomiting he is like the soldier who is also vomiting, and vomiting from poison gas is also like vomiting in the final stages of lung cancer (even though lung cancer is not mentioned). Except that now, he's not vomiting, he's haemorrhaging blood as well as regurgitating gas from his lungs which is chewed like a cud a second time. That's quite an argument! And you disagree that the final stanza is over-written?

    Comments that this is criticism for the sake of it risk sounding profoundly anti-intellectual. Why shouldn't we be attentive to the language? And if we're not being attentive to the language, what are we responding to? Heaney is right to be concerned about 'what is artistically good as well as what is generally true', and, as a consequence, to have grave doubts about certain passages in 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. Disagree, by all means, but don't pretend that this poem somehow deserves a special status above criticism. To make that case is to cheapen Owen's achievement.

    Lisa: 'like a devil with pointy horns' doesn't rhyme.

  15. Not sure I agree with you I'm afraid!! From a personal perspective I don't care whether he uses the best simile and metaphor in the whole universe- if he doesn't get the message across it is completely pointless!!! By this I mean that, though your view that his use of simplistic poetic techniques could well be correct, I think that this poem is still very poignant and therefore, it doesn't matter.
    With respect to your opinion that he is writing with an aim to convince the reader of the 'old lie', I believe that he is mearely recounting his experiences in the war in the poetic form and presenting HIS view at the end. For me, this isn't rhetoric, he is just giving the view reader a realistic account of th war in order that they may be able to judge the ethics of the recruitment more fairly, not just listening to the radio while sitting in their armchairs not knowing the truth.
    Lastly, I think the simile of cancer is quite good because I think that Owen is presenting the view that as soon as the soldiers reach the front-line they are dying, shown by 'knock kneed' and 'bentdouble like old beggars under sacks'which both show bad health and exhaustion. Therefore, because cancer also has an unnatural element to it (from radiation, smoking etc...) I think that using cancer as a simile for the evil of WW1 is quite powerful and effective.

  16. Frankly, I don't see any need to criticise the poem (other than that this is what critical analysis is all about). Owen did his best here to describe something that no-one had ever seen before 1915 in a way designed to make it stay in the memory - and if "an ecstasy of fumbling" and "froth-corrupted lungs" doesn't stick in your mind, then I don't know what will. He does so in a condemnatory way, specifically linking what he observes to what he has been told it is supposed to be: "sweet and proper". Is this 'propaganda'? Well yes, at the very least it is propaganda in the sense that it is difficult to emotively confront propaganda without yourself commiting it.

    On the other hand, the use this poem has been put to in school courses, normally dealt with in isolation in an English course rather than in its proper context (in my school it was taught in the same class as "Your Attention Please" - a poem about an imaginary nuclear attack), is propaganda of much the same kind as Owen condemns - the poem is quoted for effect at children, rather than for study by them. Since the students who read it have never heard of Horace, nor even grown up in a society where "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is considered an acceptable sentiment, they are not the target of the poem, but instead are meant to be battered by horrific imagery into a position that Owen himself did not advocate - that all war, for whatever cause, is wrong, and patriotism much the same.