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Monday, January 28, 2013

Not All Glory

Here is another essay that I wrote for my freshman comp class in junior college.  The assignment was to chose a poem from our anthology and exposit it's meaning, using research and our own interpretations.

Not All Glory
I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in. 
- George McGovern 

In his poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen contests the wisdom of those who lead young men to believe that war is something to desire and aspire towards.  He attacks this concept with evidence from his own personal experiences at the front, using graphic imagery to impress upon the reader the horrors, the ugliness of battle.  War is not the beautiful, exhilarating and glorious experience that Romantics make it out to be; rather it is hard, ugly and more often than not, traumatic for those involved.  Owen knows this, having experienced war on the front, and he writes hoping to warn his readers. Hoping to protect them from having to experience this disillusionment firsthand. 
The title of the poem ironically suggests that it will be a
patriotic poem romanticizing and glorifying war.  “Dulce et decorum est” is a Latin phrase from a poem penned by the Roman poet Horace.  The full phrase is “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” and the rough English translation is “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.  However, the message of this poem states the opposite.  The message of this poem is that it is not sweet, nor is it fitting to have to die for one’s country. 
The speaker in this poem is a soldier speaking to the recruiters, historians, teachers and parents who tell of the glories of battle without saying anything of its horrors.  He speaks also to the children who only know what their elders and textbooks have taught them.  They dream of fighting in a war, thinking that it will be a wonderful, beautiful thing, full of honor and glory and heroic performance of duty.  The soldier speaks, to tell them that war is not beautiful and most soldiers are not heroes.  They are simply men trying to survive the ugliness and make it home alive.  
Owen’s description of soldiers in his poem is something quite different from what the civilians back at home were used to reading about.  There is nothing noble or proud about these men. (LaBlanc)   They are ragged, dirty and barely sensible of their surroundings.  These soldiers are not standing tall and proud, ready to fight for King and Country, they are  “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.”(lines 1-4)  From this we see, these men are weak, sick, tired, and broken.  It is all they can do to just keep moving.  “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 Five-Nines that dropped behind.”(5-8)  A critic comments, “The troops are ‘drunk with fatigue’ - an ironic echo of the ‘sweetness’ in the title” (LaBlanc, 110)  In these lines the speaker wants us to see that war is not some distant, intangible encounter; it has a ripple effect that affects everyone, from the soldier on the front, to the civilians back at home.  The battle is as close and real to us as it is to the speaker himself. (LaBlanc)   Battle changes people.  The soldiers who marched off tall and strong to the war are reduced to ‘beggars’ and ‘hags’ by the hardships they have endured.  Bent double like old women, they wearily ‘trudge’ away from the battle instead of marching proudly towards it. (Lutz) 
Then the scene shifts. Instead of continuing the weary drudgery of the first stanza, the second one introduces some action.  “Gas! GAS! Quick boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling, / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;” (9-10)   This particular picture is very powerful, and yet, a bit confusing.  The use of the word “ecstasy” to describe the fumbling and fitting of helmets seems to contradict the tone of the scene.  In Poetry for Students, the author explains this seeming contradiction:  “Owen might  intend irony in the use of the word ‘ecstasy’, which can mean ‘a frenzy of exalted delight’.  Certainly the men should not be delighted about the attack.  In an older sense of the word, however, Owen might simply mean that the soldiers have entered a state of emotion so intense that rational thought is obliterated.” (LaBlanc, 110)   The speaker in the poem continues his narrative.  “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.” (lines 11-14)  Critic Kimberly Lutz explains, “In this war, the men desperately try to defend themselves, not from an attacking enemy, but from the almost unseen poison gas deployed by the enemy.  They defend themselves not by reaching for their guns to fight but by ineffectively ‘fumbling’ for protective gas masks.  The man who fails to reach his mask in time is doomed to die.” (123) 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”(15-16)   Owen switches from reality  to dreams, and takes us with him.  But this makes us wonder, did the vividly narrated account of the march and gas attack really happen?  Or was it simply a traumatic dream?  In the end, it really doesn’t matter.  Dream or reality, to experience this scene in real life is to be doomed to repeat it over and over again in dreams, and to dream so distinctly of such horrors is to suffer their real agony all over again.  Owen again switches his focus, this time to bitterly and angrily wish that his readers, particularly the ones guilty of romanticizing war,  could be haunted by such dreams as his own, to feel the guilt and horror that washes over him when he sees the gassed soldier. (Miller)   “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, -”(lines 17-25)  Owen wants to draw his readers into his world, make them feel what he feels, see what he sees, share in his pain.  He is confident that if they did, they would not be quite so quick to send more young men off to experience it.  “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 patrai mori.” (26-28)
Dulce et Decorum Est is not a poem about the glory and honor associated with war.  It is about the pain, suffering and death that inevitably follow a violent confrontation.  Owen graphically describes the death of a man in his company, using vivid details and raw emotion.  This poem was a wake up call when it was published in 1920, and it remains so today.  For we today, just as the recruiters and teachers of World War I, are  guilty of romanticizing war, thinking and speaking of it as glorious and exciting.  Owen’s sharp rebuke, written in the midst of war, is one that is not easily forgotten.  War is necessary at times, but it is not something to be desired or dreamed about, it is something to be avoided when at all possible and when unavoidable, engaged in soberly.

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