Monday, October 11, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est...

I have recently been taken in by this poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by the WWI English poet Wilfred Owen:

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.

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.

It is apparently one of Owen's most famous, one of the most famous poems of the war. It is the story of a group of soldiers who are headed back to camp after a day of fighting when, suddenly... "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!" There is "an ecstasy of fumbling" as Owen and the other soldiers hurry to put their gas masks on, but at least one man is too slow and Owen has to watch the entire horrific death unfold. In the last stanza the poet addresses the reader directly, stating in a sense, "O, if only you knew..." In an effort to describe what the death must of have been like, the poet gives the sense of both drowning and burning, and it is a simple leap to put those two together. Imagine drowning in a lake of fire and you are well on your way to a typical conception of Hell, leading in this poem to the "cliche": Hell on Earth.

The last bit of the poem, "Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori" is Latin and comes from ode 3.2 (that is, Book 3, Poem 2) of the Imperial Roman poet Horace. Translated into fairly smooth and natural English, the line is rendered as, "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country." The line is so well-flowing and so deeply patriotic that it had prospered and found its way into fairly common use by the early twentieth century. (The rest of the poem, although it puts forth a fairly stirring depiction of the Roman-Parthian battlefield, is more dense and not quite so well remembered.)

The line, although used satirically in this poem, was primarily spoken with grim and earnest disposition. Owen Seaman, for example, (whose disposition, incidentally, may well have inspired A.A. Milne to create Eeyore, the gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh) stood whole-heartedly behind the phrase when he wrote his poem "Pro Patria." I am not sure of the exact date of this poem, or whether it came before or after "Dulce et Decorum Est," but clearly it was written during the war, by a man who was then too old to serve. This then brings an element of generational tension and brings to mind the old maxim -- something to the effect of "Old men make make the wars and young men have to fight in them."

To this day there are proud "military families" -- in England, in my own United States, everywhere -- who have history stretching to World War One and beyond, a long line of men (and now women) who imagine themselves marching cheerfully off to battle. "Pro patria mori" -- to die for one's country. The phrase does have a ring to it, but if we translate the Latin more literally... "Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland." Suddenly, with more "foreign-sounding" syntax and the original meaning of the word patria, "fatherland," the phrase seems at least slightly more sinister; and, although I hate to say it, more like Nazi propaganda. Sure, this poem, on the surface, does not advance much beyond the single impression "War is Hell" but with my modern eye I see another aspect. I know that no major war has been fought using the principals of democracy, that "in order to preserve their freedom" young men and women must surrender their personal will at the boot camp doors. In short I see that War, in some sense at least, is fascism.

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