Thursday, November 11, 2010

The old lie

Dulce et Decorum Est

By Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

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.


dylan said...

Somewhere in his book The Government of the Tongue, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney takes this poem to task for being somewhat over-written, especially in the last stanza. I've tried googling Heaney's exact words, as I don't own the book (it was a library borrowing once upon a time).

Instead of Heaney's words, I found an excerpt by another writer, one Michael Burns, who answers Heaney's objections by agreeing with them for the most part, but also by adding: "There are times when the serious reader confronts a piece of writing that lies beyond the strictures of literary criticism." Owen's poem is one of those monumental and immortal moments in the face of which, most "literary criticism" is trivial.

dylan said...

Sed contra: A professorial blogger has a go at the poem.