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Wilfred Owen: Dulce et decorum est (Pro patria mori – The Old Lie)


The Roman poet Horace wrote “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country” as Rome shifted from republic to empire. By 1917 British infantryman Wilfred Owen had reduced Horace’s sentiment to “The old Lie.” Owen was killed in the Great War. His poem wasn’t published until 1920 after the war. Even exposed, the old lie went on to adorn many monuments, including, also in 1920, the rising U.S. empire’s Arlington National Cemetery.

Dulce et Decorum Est (August, 1917)

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.

Then somewhere near in front: Whew… fup… fop… fup…
Gas-shells or duds? We loosened masks, in case —
And listened … Nothing… Far rumouring of Krupp…
Then stinging, poison hit us in the face.

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.

NMT
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2 thoughts on “Wilfred Owen: Dulce et decorum est (Pro patria mori – The Old Lie)

  1. Right on. Short enough to not lose the attention of the jaded youth. Or jaded elders. For those who have the attention span and the stomach to read it, there’s another much longer treatise by a German veteran “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It was published when people didn’t have the physical structure of their brains altered by Television, you know, makes them tired to hear or read anything longer than what’s called a “sound bite”.

    You get hit by a few hundred thousand sound bites every day. Seriously. If you got as many mosquito or flea bites as you do sound bites, let’s shorten it (for the hard of reading lol omg) to a couple of hours worth of TeeVee and you’d be hospitalized if not dead.

  2. if you do the recommended reading you’ll be haunted for life. Imagine, at that point, what it must have been to those who lived it before writing a very abbreviated and self-censored account.

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