On this day in 1917, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), an English soldier recovering from shell shock, composed the first draft of the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The poem is one of the most vivid, realistic depictions of the horrific trench warfare of World War I and is one of the most powerful rebuttals ever made to the argument that it is valorous to die for one’s country.
Owen joined the army in 1915, and after he was wounded in combat in France in 1917, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is there that he penned the first draft of his poem and sent it to his mother with a note: “Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final)” (1).
The poem begins with an image of the exhausting drudgery of life on the front lines:
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.
Drudgery and exhaustion turn to nightmare as Owen describes a gas attack and the horror of watching one of his comrades in arms die before his eyes:
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. (2)
The words that end the poem, as well as the words in the poem’s title, are Latin, written by the Roman poet Horace. The first four words, which also serve as the poem’s title, translate: “It is sweet and glorious.” The final three words of the poem that complete the exhortation translate: “to die for one’s country.”
The words from Horace that Owen calls “The old Lie” would have been familiar to Owen’s readers since they were often quoted during the frenzy of recruiting at the beginning of World War I. These Latin words are also inscribed on the wall of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Berkshire, England. In the United States, the words are etched in stone above the rear entrance to the Memorial Amphitheater, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery.
After his recovery, Owen rejoined his regiment and returned to the trenches of France. He was killed in battle on November 4, 1918, one week before the war ended on November 11, Armistice Day.
Owen’s poem is a rebuttal — the presentation of contradictory evidence — to an ancient expression of conventional wisdom, as seen in Horace’s Latin exhortation (here translated into English): How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.
To make his rebuttal, Owen structures his poem inductively, with details that move from the specific to the general. Instead of stating his point at the beginning of the poem in a deductive structure, he, instead, begins with detailed imagery to show rather than tell. Owen’s use of such powerful figurative language and sensory imagery creates such a horrific picture that Owen hardly needs to state his point. The vivid details allow readers to infer the point for themselves; even a reader who does not know Latin would be able to make a logical inference regarding the “old Lie.”
Today’s Challenge: Rebut With Reality
The practice of questioning conventional wisdom is a tradition that dates back to Socrates. It’s an excellent way to discover ways in which common sense is not always perfectly logical and to explore counterintuitive insights. It’s also an excellent way to avoid poor decisions. In 1962, for example, executives at the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because conventional wisdom led them to conclude that guitar music was on the way out. What are some examples of conventional wisdom (widely accepted truisms) that you have encountered, and how might you challenge conventional wisdom with a detailed, evidence-based rebuttal? Write a rebuttal in either prose or poetry of a single statement of conventional wisdom, such as, “If you work hard, you will succeed” or “Pride goeth before the fall.” Organize your writing inductively, using specific imagery and figurative language to show your point rather than tell it. If you are successful, you may not even need to state the central claim of your rebuttal at the end. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1-Poets.org. Wilfred Owen. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/wilfred-owen.
2- Owen, Wilfred. Dulce et Decorum Est. 1921. Poetry Foundation.org. Public Domain. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est.