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“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a poem written by Wilfred Owen that describes the horrors of World War I through the senses of a soldier. Owen uses extreme, harsh imagery to accurately describe how the war became all the soldiers were aware of. This was in protest to the way England was glorifying war. As all the imagery he uses is negatively connotated, by the end of the poem, the imagery has overcome the soldier as well as the reader. The imagery in Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” makes it clear that war was not the honorable thing that England was making it out to be, but instead, it was a horrifying reality that no one should have to face.
War, while mostly negatively connotated, has been viewed positively in some societies. A lot of culture views fighting in a war for one’s country as an example of honor and pride. The very title of Owen’s poem is “Dulce et Decorum Est” which alludes to the Latin phrase “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. This phrase translates to “It is sweet and proper to die for your country”. After reading the poem, it becomes clear that Owen is being sarcastic in the title and is really arguing completely against the phrase as he calls it “the old Lie”. The imagery he uses completely supports this argument as it anything from “sweet and proper”. Owen specifically goes out of his way to describe the scenery around the soldiers as dark, dirty, and disgusting in order to combat the thought that anything about war is “sweet and proper”.
Owen uses graphic imagery all throughout ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, to give visuals for the audience. The readers are met with horror and disgust, which is likely what Owen intended. He describes the soldier being hit with gas as having a “hanging face…gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” Owen uses this harsh imagery to accurately describe the war and what the soldiers were involved in. He ensures that the readers are aware of this and further aware of his bitterness and anger. Owen encourages the reader to feel angry about what is happening to these innocent, young men.
As a specific strategy to take the glory out of war, Owen uses particular similes between the soldiers and lower members of English society to portray the reality of war. The English society at this time was very distinctly separated by classes, and the upper classes were undoubtedly seen as superior to the lower classes. The soldiers were seen as the heroes of the country, and therefore were grouped with the upper class in how they were viewed. However, they were treated and lived “like old beggars under sacks” (1). He also compares them to “hags” (2) which invokes not only lower-class, but also evil. By showing the soldiers in this light instead of the glorified way society viewed them, Owen takes away the appeal of war and replaces it with a distaste associated with the lower classes.
Every image that Owen conjures up in his poem is about the worst description one could imagine for a situation. In a way, it makes the poem seem a bit absurd as some of the images are hardly fathomable. It seems, however, that this is the effect Owen wanted to convey. The way he describes the life of the soldiers is so bad that the average reader cannot even comprehend the images he is describing, “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” (21-24). With phrases such as “obscene as cancer” and “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”, Owen forces the unpleasant image of dying, rotting flesh. This is an image that most readers do not comprehend at first, at it is natural in society to filter out such harsh images. Owen uses this shocking imagery to point out that what the soldiers go through is completely absurd and no one should ever have to come to understand the horrible images he describes. His strong imagery makes his message even stronger.
Another way Owen uses imagery to convey his message is by taking away the senses of the soldiers in the poem. Throughout the entire text, the soldiers are described with words such as “lame” (6), “blind” (6), “deaf” (7), “fumbling” (9), and “clumsy” (10). These words all signify when a sense is not working correctly. By using words like this throughout the entire poem, Owen even more strips down the image of a strong, honorable, young man defending the country. Words like these convey the reality that these are helpless boys who are being dehumanized as all their physical senses along with sense of being is slipping away with the war.
Owen shows the young men slipping away in the first half of the poem, in order to show the psychological effects of the war in the second half of the poem. The second half consists of an officer explaining how he is haunted every night by one of his men who died right before his eyes, “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (15-16). Through this section, it becomes clear, that even those not physically harmed, lost their senses within the war. Although this particular officer survived the encounter with the gas, he has to relive the horror every night “before his helpless sight”. Not only does the war take away control of their senses, it also takes control of their sanity as they are never able to leave the battlefield even when the war is over.
Overall, this poem is not easily forgotten as the imagery Owen uses is extremely unpleasant. The human mind is at peace when it reads or imagines things that are comfortable and easy to comprehend. Something like Owen’s poem distresses the mind, causing it to dwell on the disturbing imagery described. While Owen’s argument is strong and uncomfortable to dwell on, he succeeds in fighting against the thought that war is sweet. Now when people think of the Latin phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, they will instead think of the imagery in Owen’s poem and shudder in fright at the thought of war.
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