Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Dulce et Decorum Est

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April is National Poetry Month, and I plan to post one poem per day every day this month (If you have a favorite poem that you’d like me to share, feel free to email it to me).

Today’s poem was suggested by a reader, Mike, who writes “This has been one of my favorites for a long time. It reminds me that poetry need not be beautiful, nor speak of beautiful things to be meaningful. Indeed it is the very ugliness of this poem and the situation that sticks with me and makes it all the more poignant.”

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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, killed in action shortly before Armistice. Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (New Directions Publishing Corporation; Revised edition; 1965).


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    April 28, 2008

    Owen is the WWI poet whose work seems the most remarkable to me. I agree with Mike’s comments.

    Nine of Owen’s poems were used in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, first performed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The sung settings are extremely effective.

  2. #2 Julie Stahlhut
    April 28, 2008

    The slogan Pro Patria also figures in a similarly themed poem from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology; it’s on the gravestone of Knowlt Hoheimer, who got into a scrape with the law during the Civil War, ran off to join the army to avoid serving jail time, and was killed in the battle of Missionary Ridge.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    April 28, 2008

    This encouraged me to listen to the War Requiem again. I totally agree with Scott – the Dies Irae is particularly powerful.

  4. #4 MikeG
    April 28, 2008

    Thanks for the reminder of the War Requiem. I’ll have to pull that out soon, though I don’t know if I can handle that all tonight.

    Thanks for posting this, Grrl.

  5. #5 Sippy
    April 28, 2008

    Nice selection. That is one of my favorites. As is the Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams.

  6. #6 Pete Berry
    April 28, 2008

    Amazing how so many people of such remarkable talent found each other. Scott brought out the Britten connection; Owen’s great mentor, of course was Sassoon – and he in turn was guided and influenced by Graves and knew Hardy very well. ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’ and ‘Goodbye to all That’ are the only war books I think I have ever re-read – and re-read several times. Were I to presume to suggest a poem, I think I would offer, as complete contrasts to Owen, Graves’ Flying Crooked (which has a Science bent – sort of, in a way) or Hardy’s In Time of The Breaking of Nations , which is perhaps over-sentimental to modern minds, but to me is exquisite craftsmanship – like a small precise instrument. I don’t think you can change or remove a single word from the poem without breaking it, and that includes the title – which is a vital part of the structure. Maybe.

    Thanks for the thread. (And the poems.)


  7. #7 Colin Schulhauser
    April 28, 2008

    I think it’s great that you’re doing this; this is one of my favourite poems. However, there is a mistake in the 14th line: it should read “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”


  8. #8 "GrrlScientist"
    April 28, 2008

    thanks for the correction.

  9. #9 Tony
    April 28, 2008

    Many years ago in public school, we were told that the latin translated to “It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country”. Not sure how accurate that is but its stuck with me for over 40 years now.


  10. #10 DeafScientist
    April 29, 2008

    Tony, that’s (roughly!) my recollection of it too.

    ‘Dulce et decorum est’ must be a staple of high schools of the (former) British Commonwealth! I’m sure its been in the English cirriculum “forever” in New Zealand at least.

    Not sure if you are aware, but it has just been ANZAC weekend here in New Zealand, so this is appropriate in many ways.

    Usually read at the ANZAC memorial services is a verse from ‘For the Fallen’:

    They shall grow not old… as we that are left grow old
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn*
    At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

    (*I’ve always thought this to be condemn. My hearing is no good and this rhymes with what is apparently the right word so I have no real way of knowing. A little research shows that many websites gives this working so perhaps condemn is now used, but contemn was the original wording?)

    I suspect you’d probably have to be an ANZAC countryman to fully know how well this verse is known and the feelings for it.

  11. #11 Peter Howe
    April 29, 2008

    The question arises, “Was Wilfred Owen a hero?” I think it is the strangest thing that the Military Cross was awarded posthumously to the man who wrote that “Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori” is a lie.

  12. #12 Azad
    April 29, 2008

    It is the first come I have come across Wilfred Owen’s best work. Remarkable work by a soldier who personally witnessed the pain and agony of war and died facing it. He witnessed how disgusting and stupid war was where young men turned old and then dead in no time, where human beings became animals and exposed the government lie telling people that ‘it is honorable to die for one’s country’. It is not!
    There is no glory in war!!!

  13. #13 ladyvonkulp
    April 29, 2008

    The kicker being that Owen died a week before armistice. This is one of my favorite poems ever.

    I agree with all the comments about Britten’s opus; I’ve seen it performed twice, the second time being very shortly after 9/11.

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