Dulce Et Decorum Est.
In October 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart, "Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!"
While the earliest surviving draft is dated 8th October 1917, a few months later, at Scarborough or Ripon, he revised it.
The title is ironic. The intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.
It comprises four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure.
Stanza 1 sets the scene. The soldiers are limping back from the Front, an appalling picture expressed through simile and metaphor. Such is the men's wretched condition that they can be compared to old beggars, hags (ugly old women). Yet they were young! Barely awake from lack of sleep, their once smart uniforms resembling sacks, they cannot walk straight as their blood-caked feet try to negotiate the mud. "Blood-shod" seems a dehumanising image- we think of horses shod not men. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. "Distant rest" - what kind of rest? For some the permanent kind? "Coughing" finds an echo later in the poem, while gas shells dropping softly suggests a menace stealthy and devilish. Note how in line 8 the rhythm slackens as a particularly dramatic moment approaches.
In Stanza 2, the action focuses on one man who couldn't get his gas helmet…