The poem begins with a Latin title, Dulce Et Decorum Est, meaning it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country. The meaning of title is already very ironic as the whole poem is actually looking at war from a very negative point of view. It is blatantly to the point as the poem strips away the ‘make-up’ -illusions of glory and heroism, revealing it for what it truly is, terrible and devastating.
The tempo of this poem is rather slow at the beginning, giving the impression of the soldiers being very tired as they ‘marched asleep’. However, the pace begins to quicken in stanza two, and slows down again at the end of the last stanza, returning to its original speed. The poem, on the whole, is very rhythmic. This style is used by the poet to conjure up feelings of sympathy and regret.
The first stanza is mainly about how exhausted the soldiers had been, due to the constant battles in the war. Both the atmosphere of the poem and the soldiers are portrayed as fatigued, highlighting the strain that war puts on the people and the environment. However, the poet does not tell the readers explicitly. Instead, he uses different literary devices to allow us not only to know, but to actually understand and be able to feel how exhausted the soldiers are.
Firstly, the poem begins with similes and metaphors such as ‘coughing like hags’ and ‘like old beggars under sacks’. These descriptions paint a picture of exhausted, dishevelled soldiers trudging back ‘through sludge’ and draw the readers into the poem.
By describing the soldiers as being ‘old beggars under sacks’, the poet is trying to suggest how physically feeble the soldiers have become by bringing their level of tiredness down to the level of old beggars who have not slept in a bed for a very long time. This metaphor is useful as it shows the degree of the soldiers’ exhaustion, not just plain tired.
Secondly, the poet has an excellent choice of diction. In the first stanza, the word ‘sludge’ reinforces the poet’s hatred for war and that he felt the country was sending many young men literally to their death. It also emphasises how disgusting and revolting the war is.
The use of phrases such as ‘blood-shod’ shows how the soldiers have been on their feet for days without rest, putting pictures of soldiers in shoes filled with blood vividly into the readers’ mind.
Thirdly, personification is also used in this stanza. The phrase ‘of tired, outstripped Five-Nines’, can be both the personification of the soldiers’ exhaustion or to give the impression that even the surroundings were drained of energy. The word ‘outstripped’ meant that the soldiers were initially bursting of energy and had gone much further than they were required to. However as the time past, they got more and more exhausted. Thus from being ‘outstripped’, the soldiers became ‘tired’ and were ‘dropped behind’. This shows the change in the soldiers’ morale after going through countless of battles. They became very weary and exhausted.
Fourthly, hyperbole which is used to stress a certain point in the poem, is used in this stanza. The phrase ‘all went lame, all blind’ is an exaggeration which contributes to the feeling that not only did the poet’s platoon felt so, but also everyone in the army. ‘Drunk with fatigue; deaf even the hoots’ is also another example of the hyperbole as it exaggerates the exhaustion of the soldiers, that they were so exhausted that they could not hear anything.
Fifthly, alliteration plays a part in the tempo of the first stanza. ‘Knock-kneed’, ‘bent double, like old beggars…’ are such examples. These alliterations strongly emphasise the tiredness of the soldiers, giving this stanza a slow and heavy rhythm.
The second stanza begins with a sudden change in the situation. The initially tired soldiers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a gas attack. There was a lot of commotion. The poet effectively describes the scenario through colour imagery of the gas attack, allowing the readers to be able to visualise the entire situation. This stanza is slightly different from the previous one in certain ways, using certain styles.
Firstly, the tempo in the second stanza changed drastically. It becomes much faster and there is a sense of urgency present throughout the whole stanza. This is shown through diction. The first 2 words of the stanza, ‘GAS! Gas!’ shows the change in the scenario and change in the mood of the poem. The capitalisation of the first word ‘gas’ also shows the anxiety and the tone of concern the poet has towards his soldiers. This contributes to the sense of urgency in the stanza, quickening the pace. The word ‘stumbling’ also gives change to the tempo, making it go at a faster pace. This also effectively helps to convey the confusion and panic of the soldiers who were thrown into such a sudden situation. However, the tempo begins to resume its original speed with ‘the misty panes and thick green light’, which ‘forces’ the readers to ‘see’ the soldier dying in slow motion.
Secondly, the punctuation used in the first line ‘–‘ creates a sense of foreboding as it forces the readers to pause before continuing reading the poem. This makes readers think about what will happen in the lines to come. This punctuation, which is known as caesura, is repeated in line 12 of the poem, but for a much different effect. In line 12, the poet is trying to pull the readers into a dream-like situation so that he could describe about his nightmare with the readers able to fully ‘experience’ it.
Thirdly, there is irony in this stanza. The phrase ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ is juxtaposition. This is because ecstasy usually suggests heightened happiness whereas fumbling is more of a mistake. This literary device is used to emphasise the state of confusion the soldiers are in.
Fourthly, colour imagery such as ‘thick green light’, ‘green sea’, is used. The metaphor ‘green sea’ is also used to describe the gas surrounding the soldiers. This helps to contribute to the readers’ visualisation of the gas attack. Instead of just describing it as ‘light’ or ‘sea’, the poet adds colour to his description, giving a much clearer picture of the situation.
Fifthly, the poet’ choice of words is also important. The words, imagery and metaphors used in the last two lines pull the readers into a dream-like situation, or more specifically into the previous nightmares the poet had had of his soldiers dying in front of him. For example, the word ‘drowning’ provides a vivid image of a person dying. It gives the readers a sense of helplessness and put the readers in the shoes of the dying soldier. These lines help to give way to the third stanza.
In the whole poem, each stanza is made up of at least 6 lines. However, the third stanza is the only one with 2 lines. This shows that the third stanza has a great significance in the whole poem and is only 2 lines to create an impact on the readers.
The third stanza is basically about the poet’s nightmare and how the scenario that is taking place before his eyes is very similar to it as his nightmare seems to be of a regular occurrence. This stanza is also the turning point of the poem. What makes these 2 mere lines significant in comparison to the whole poem is the poet’s exact choice of diction.
These 3 words, ‘guttering, chocking and drowning’ contributed to the tone of the poem. There was initially a sense of urgency in the tone of the second stanza. Though there is still a sense of immediacy in this stanza, the tone was changed in this stanza, to one that is more of depression, lack of hope and revulsion. The word ‘guttering’ is usually known as the burning out of a candle. However, it is used in the poem to describe the soldier, meaning that the soldier is just like a flame that is dying. It symbolises the lack of hope of the soldier to survive. This brings the poem to life, giving the readers a sense of reality.
This stanza acts as a punch to the readers by using cacophonic words such as ‘guttering, chocking and drowning’ to portray an image of war. Repetition of the present participle helps in building up the pain of the dying man and is not only showing how the soldier is suffering but more importantly, the degree of his pain is so terrible that no human should endure. The theme of dehumanisation is repeated in this stanza.
In the fourth stanza, the tempo of the poem becomes faster again when the soldier who had died earlier on, was ‘flung’ into the wagon. This reveals the sense of urgency the other soldiers had and their occupation with fighting. It also shows the inhumanity of the other soldiers as they had just ‘flung’ him into a wagon as though he was just a mere object.
The imagery used in this stanza is mainly graphic imagery. These images are able to describe what the poet cannot describe through mere words. They are very strong, harsh and effective as graphic imagery can evoke emotions so as to cause people to be sick. Descriptions such as ‘white eyes writhing in his face’ and ‘blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’, are abominable and disturbing, etching a scar in our memory that is both striking and astounding, just like how the soldiers will be unable to forget the things they had seen in war. This is because it brings about the image of troops being brutally slaughtered very vividly, evoking images in the readers’ mind.
The metaphors used in this stanza are mainly based on the motif of disease and the theme of dehumanisation. One of the metaphors compares ‘vile, incurable sores…’ with the memories of these soldiers, telling the readers how the soldiers’ memories of the war will never ever be forgotten and how frightening and shocking these experiences are, also portraying the harsh realities of war through the mental and physical pain of the soldiers. This comparison illustrates the point so vividly that it increases the effectiveness of the poem. The phrase where blood is as ‘bitter as cud’, is another reference to animals, showing that the soldiers were not like humans but like cows instead.
The words the poet chose to use in the imagery are also very effective. The words ‘writhing’ and ‘frothing’ tells the readers precisely how the soldiers were tormented. The fact that one word can make a difference shows how the diction of this poem adds greatly to its effectiveness. The word ‘gargling’ employs the usage of onomatopoeia, which helps to illustrate the shocking situation. Words such as ‘writhing’ and ‘frothing’ have established visual elements and the usage of onomatopoeia or sound helps to evoke even more emotion the ms within the readers, showing that war is harsh and is not a suffering that the soldiers should endure. The 2 ‘if’ in lines 17 and 21, shows the change from a marching contingent to the poet’s nightmare.
In the last 4 lines, the focus of the poem has shifted onto the readers and the poet starts to distance away from the readers. By using phrases such as ‘you would not tell’, the poet delivers the final punch to the readers. The poet blames the ignorance of those who don’t go to war, for all the death of the innocent soldiers who initially went to war with the promise of glory and comradeship or ‘ardent for some desperate glory’. Finally, the poet uses a caesura again, ‘The old lie: Ducle et decorum est/Pro patria mori’. This time it is to ‘attack’ this saying which was commonly used to encourage young men to join the war. The poet shows his disagreement with this saying, believing that there is neither nobility nor honour in war and that the poet’s purpose of writing this poem is for those who did not go to war to see the reality and misery of the war.
Through vivid imagery and compelling metaphors, the poem stirs up the exact feelings that the poet wanted. The use of exact diction and vivid figurative language add further emphasis on his point, that war is truly devastating and horrible. He also uses imagery which gives a horrifying impression especially in the way how war has dehumanised them. The theme of dehumanisation is being repeatedly emphasised in the poem as it is present in almost every stanza, conveying the idea that war has taken humanity away from the soldiers. The literary devices used, makes this poem extremely effective as an anti-war poem as it stirs up sympathy for the soldiers, forcing the readers to pity and evaluate war horrors, which is absolutely horrid and revolting.