March 21, 2008

This one never gets old:

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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.


Putting aside the ongoing--apparently perpetual--timeliness of this poem, it continues to amaze me as I come back to it periodically just how damned good it is. Read it out loud--at least with your lips moving--and listen for the meter. Check out the unusual placement of the prepositional phrases in lines three and four, and then that three-word sentence in the next line.

"Blood-shod": that phrase could have been crafted a thousand years earlier. That and "Ecstasy of fumbling" represent what I see as the perfect convergence of art and craft in this poem.

And check out the rhyme of "drowning" with "drowning" where the poem turns--you want it to go somewhere away from drowning, but it doesn't. A poet can't play that card very often, but Owen makes it count here.

I won't drag you through the last stanza again, but the way the meter and rhyme push the reader toward the poem's conclusion continues to impress me, and the conclusion is at once surprising and inevitable. It amazes me how much subtlety there is in such an unsubtle poem.

1 comment:

--S. said...

Funnily enough, I actually did re-read that one not too long ago, as we were making our way through the season of Upstairs, Downstairs set in WWI. I'm more a Wallace Stevens girl, true, but those poor damned Brits definitely had a thing or two going on there.