by Chris Murphy

Wilfred Owen’s poetry haunts me:

Owen, courtesy of The Mirror
Owen, courtesy of The Mirror

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen (Read by Christopher Eccleston)

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 Fine-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.

The misery, the fatigued rhymes, the powerful imagery.

And the pity.

But that isn’t quite it. What makes Owen’s poetry memorable to me (and all the more damning) is his ability to capture the “reasoned crisis of the soul”: The slow destruction of the psyche as witnessed by the very soldier deteriorating. He creates an atmosphere where bullets and shells that missed their targets “teased the hunger of [the] brain” and where “courage leaked [from soldiers], as sand / From the best sandbags after years of rain” (from “S.I.W”).

Owen saw many soldiers reach their breaking points.

He spent time himself at Craiglockhart recovering from his own bout with “shell-shock,” a new psychological disorder experienced by soldiers on both sides of the trenches, as the carnage of modern warfare pushed the capabilities of what the human mind could process to its extremes.

Owen must have witnessed many of the “men whose minds the dead have ravished” (from “Mental Cases“).

“Dulce et Decorum Est” was the first of Owen’s poems to haunt me.

gasmask, courtesy of AEF Doughboys
gasmask, courtesy of AEF Doughboys

I was first haunted by the imagery: the agonizing fate of the man who fumbled with his gas mask, his “guttering, choking, drowning” death from air poisoned by mustard, phosgene, or chlorine. Owen’s poem placed the “misty panes and thick green lenses” of his early gasmask on my unsuspecting eyes. I shared his helpless gaze: watching a desperate man suffer and stretch his arm toward me before plunging.

And while Owen spares me from part of his burden, telling me that I can neither truly watch this dead man’s “white eyes writhing in his hanging face” nor hear “the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” as he must as he paces behind the wagon, I am haunted again: this time by compassion. I recognize that the survivor pacing behind the wagon is aware that he too is wasted. Not physically like the dead man flung into the wagon, but broken nevertheless.

In his haunted dreams he recognizes his failing ability to control his mind. “In all [of his] dreams,” he replays the trauma. His broken psyche smothers him. And I am a helpless observer once again. Here, haunted as I bear witness to a soul in crisis that is also guttering, choking, drowning, but continuing to trudge forward.

My third haunting comes as I dig deeper into the sludge, the mud, and unearth its buried history. “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.”

Who are these last lines addressed to? Who are the damned recipients of Owen’s ire? Who speaks of war in such high zest?

In early drafts, this poem was dedicated to “A certain poetess,” Jessie Pope, a journalist and children’s author.

Jessie Pope, courtesy of
Jessie Pope, courtesy of

Pope’s “white-feather” war poetry published in The Daily Mail had the same aim as groups like the “Order of the White Feather,” which would send letters enclosed with a white feathers (a symbol of cowardice) to young men thought to be avoiding military service:  To shame them to enlist.

But Pope’s poems were geared directly toward the young. Making light of the war. Making it–well–a game or a play.

Who’s for the Game?
By Jessie Pope

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to Go!?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much –
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.

For Owen, there was nothing sweet or glorious or fun in the slaughter.

But still, as anti-war as his poetry reads, he chose to return to the lines after his stay at Craiglockhart, a fatal choice, as Owen was killed in action just a week prior to the 1918 Armistice — the official end to the war — in the Sambre-Oise Canal, France. Only 25 years old.

A haunting reminder of all those left dead (or broken) too early.