Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Not to be forgotten...

Like almost every former British schoolkid, I was exposed to the 1914-18 War Poets as a teenager. Although poetry never really did that much for me, these verses did. There are countless examples that throw the poignancy of so many young lives lost into sharp relief, especially after the jingoism of post-Victorian sentiments at the beginning of the war. Some reduce me to tears.

The below - "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen - is possibly the best-known...

Bent double, like old beggards under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Til 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 soem desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The author of this powerful poem did not survive the war. He was killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre just a week before the war ended, and the news of his death reached home as the town's church bells declared peace. His poetry, including "Dulce et decorum est" and "Anthem for Lost Youth" were published posthumously in 1919.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" translates very roughly as "It is good and right to die for the Fatherland".
As they say in exam questions: Discuss.


  1. I can't discuss that quote. I'd get myself tangled up in all sorts of mess. What I'm reminded of today (and during the Remembrance Sunday service) is that the least we can do is remember them. And I rather appreciate that opportunity to reflect in the oasis that is the 2 minutes silence.

  2. It's always interesting to contrast Wilfred Owen with Rupert Brookes - the latter with his slightly gung-ho spirit of decency and democracy, and his gentle longing for Home and England. His is almost a Peter Pan-ish sense of Death being no more than "a great adventure" and bound up with that Victorian sense of fair play and nobleness and honour.

    And, of course, he died before it all got ugly and pointless and futile.

    That's where Owen comes in and shines a very harsh light on the vast stupidity of it all. Of young men wondering just exactly what on Earth they were doing there in the first place, and what excatly was it that they were fighting for? The Enemy is very hard to look in the eye, much less kill, when he's as broken and frightened and young as you are.

    Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote that men don't go to war - children do. We send children to fight and kill, and we make them come home as men.