Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.
Wilfred Owen died a week ago yesterday, November 4, 1918. His parents were informed yesterday, a week after his death on November 11, 1918. His parents got the telegram announcing his death while the bells were ringing to celebrate the end of war on Armistice Day.
I was seventeen when I first read this poem. It was the first time I had ever read a poet who called official, governmental pronouncements lies. People had always said that the war dead were heroes. Since then, people have said regularly that the government lies and that the government’s lies cause the death of men and women. John Kerry said it testifying before Congress: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Even a dolt could see what the Republicans were going to do after 9/11—lie their way into war with Iraq—and most of the country believed them, as if they didn’t have experience with Republicans and war. But in the back of my mind, I remembered Wilfred Owen. Wilfred Owen was the truth-teller, the first one on this scale and this concentration, and the greatest, who said, the government lies. The dead are victims.
When I came, finally, to deal with being queer, I had Wilfred Owen on my side. That old lie, he said. The government, all three branches of it, has lied repeatedly about people like us. They are like my relatives, who waver between willful malevolence and lazy—and dangerous—ignorance, but who end by hurting us. As Charles Howard attests, the government’s lies kill. This current president practices malevolence and ignorance.
I was telling Courtney today, before he went to work this afternoon, about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and then I had to go on and tell him about Siegfried Sassoon, the English poet who met Owen in 1917, at a rehabilitation hospital for British soldiers. Biographers think the two poets fell in love there, and then Wilfred Owen went back to the front and was killed, and Siegfried Sassoon survived and went on to a long career as a poet, novelist, and, apparently, a life grieving for Wilfred Owen. Attached is an article from several years ago about these two poets and their love for each other. The line at the end —a quote from Siegfried Sassoon—will show you the enormity of Sassoon’s loss one hundred years ago yesterday and will break your heart.