Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: Dulce et Decorum Est

(Soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swampy area, 1969)

If you do nothing else this Memorial Day, read the following poem by Wilfred Owen.
Dulce et Decorum Est

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 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.

In a letter home, Owen translated the Latin phrase from Horace as: “It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country.” Wilfred Owen died in combat in World War I. He was twenty-five.

I remember exactly where I was when I first read Dulce et Decorum Est: in a Brit Lit survey class at Grinnell College, with sun coming over the page of my Norton anthology from the window behind me. If this is your first time reading the poem, maybe it will haunt you too.

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