The boys are bent over like old beggars carrying sacks, and they curse and cough through the mud until the "haunting flares" tell them it is time to head toward their rest. As they march some men are asleep, others limp with bloody feet as they'd lost their boots. All are lame and blind, extremely tired and deaf to the shells falling behind them.
Suddenly there is gas, and the speaker calls, "Quick, boys!" There is fumbling as they try to put on their helmets in time. One soldier is still yelling and stumbling about as if he is on fire. Through the dim "thick green light" the speaker sees him fall like he is drowning.
The drowning man is in the speaker's dreams, always falling, choking.
The speaker says that if you could follow behind that wagon where the soldier's body was thrown, watching his eyes roll about in his head, see his face "like a devil's sick of sin", hear his voice gargling frothy blood at every bounce of the wagon, sounding as "obscene as cancer" and bitter as lingering sores on the tongue, then you, "my friend", would not say with such passion and conviction to children desirous of glory, "the old lie" of "Dulce et decorum est".
"Dulce et Decorum est" is without a doubt one of, if not the most, memorable and anthologized poems in Owen's oeuvre. Its vibrant imagery and searing tone make it an unforgettable excoriation of WWI, and it has found its way into both literature and history courses as a paragon of textual representation of the horrors of the battlefield. It was written in 1917 while Owen was at Craiglockhart, revised while he was at either Ripon or Scarborough in 1918, and published posthumously in 1920. One version was sent to Susan Owen, the poet's mother, with the inscription, "Here is a gas poem done yesterday (which is not private, but not final)." The poem paints a battlefield scene of soldiers trudging along only to be interrupted by poison gas. One soldier does not get his helmet on in time and is thrown on the back of the wagon where he coughs and sputters as he dies. The speaker bitterly and ironically refutes the message espoused by many that war is glorious and it is an honor to die for one's country.
The poem is a combination of two sonnets, although the spacing between the two is irregular. It resembles French ballad structure. The broken sonnet form and the irregularity reinforce the feeling of otherworldliness; in the first sonnet, Owen narrates the action in the present, while in the second he looks upon the scene, almost dazed, contemplative. The rhyme scheme is traditional, and each stanza features two quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter with several spondaic substitutions.
"Dulce" is a message of sorts to a poet and civilian propagandist, Jessie Pope, who had written several jingoistic and enthusiastic poems exhorting young men to join the war effort. She is the "friend" Owen mentions near the end of his poem. The first draft was dedicated to her, with a later revision being altered to "a certain Poetess". However, the final draft eliminated a specific reference to her, as Owen wanted his words to apply to a larger audience.
The title of the poem, which also appears in the last two lines, is Latin for, "It is sweet and right to die for one's country" - or, more informally, "it is an honor to die for one's country". The line derives from the Roman poet Horace's Ode 3.2. The phrase was commonly used during the WWI era, and thus would have resonated with Owen's readers. It was also inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst in 1913.
In the first stanza Owen is speaking in first person, putting himself with his fellow soldiers as they labor through the sludge of the battlefield. He depicts them as old men, as "beggars". They have lost the semblance of humanity and are reduced to ciphers. They are wearied to the bone and desensitized to all but their march. In the second stanza the action occurs – poisonous gas forces the soldiers to put their helmets on. Owen heightens the tension through the depiction of one unlucky soldier who could not complete this task in time - he ends up falling, "drowning" in gas. This is seen through "the misty panes and the thick green light", and, as the imagery suggests, the poet sees this in his dreams.
In the fourth stanza Owen takes a step back from the action and uses his poetic voice to bitterly and incisively criticize those who promulgate going to war as a glorious endeavor. He paints a vivid picture of the dying young soldier, taking pains to limn just how unnatural it is, "obscene as cancer". The dying man is an offense to innocence and purity – his face like a "devil's sick of sin". Owen then says that, if you knew what the reality of war was like, you would not go about telling children they should enlist. There is utterly no ambiguity in the poem, and thus it is emblematic of poetry critical of war.