Yesterday I came across a poem and, reading it, obsessed over its simplicity, its horror, its capacity to make the past breathe (or, more appropriately, choke). Although there are many reasons why one may write poetry, one of the highest, I believe, is to aspire for timelessness. “Dulce et Decorum est” by the WWI-era British soldier Wilfred Owen does that.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the centennial of the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and how it triggered the events that led to World War One. So, it’s in this same spirit I’m posting the work of Owen who, unfortunately, never lived to see much of his poetry published. Sadly, on November 4, 1918, he was killed in the battlefield one week before the Armistice was signed.
It’s easy to distance oneself from the past, to see epochs not our own in faded colors, the actors as automatons playing their parts to achieve the present. In some ways, I think this habit is a self-defense mechanism, but I’ll save that for another article (Does this mean the future will forget my own humanity? But everything I do is so important!). But it’s through pieces like this that the snake-trenches across Europe become real. It’s scenes like those in the last stanza that the horrors of war become vivid.
“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 hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumblingFitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd 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 paceBehind 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 bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
Those last lines ought to be remembered by every apologist for armed conflict. Here in the United States, I’m disgusted by how we glorify warfare, how we fantasize over conquering, how buried deep inside each of us, instead of seeing a Mother, a Father, a Child, a Human — we see a Warrior. It’s apparent in the language we use, and it’s apparent in Arlington Cemetery.
I was so entranced by Owen’s piece that I decided record my own reading and, taking a break, I came across the following in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963). At this point, the characters are at a memorial service and someone just finished reciting a poem about a dead soldier that ends with the question, ” ‘Pro Patria.’ / What do they mean, anyway?”
“What do they mean, anyway?” echoed Ambassador Horlick Minton. “They mean, ‘For one’s country.’ ” And he threw away another line. “Any country at all,” he murmured.“This wreath I bring as a gift from the people of one country to the people of another. Never mind which countries. Think of people. …“And any children murdered in war …“And any country at all” (p.256).
All of these dead — whether in the Great or Iraq Wars, whether British or German or Iraqi — these are people, children, murdered in any war for any country at all.