Dulc(e) et decor(um) est…

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, c. 1916

I have always been uncomfortable with what I take to be the popular interpretation of Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est.

My first experience of it was in about 1962 from the lips of our young English teacher, a socialist just down from Cambridge, and he certainly put the full phlegm of disgust into his reading of the final stanza (‘devil’s sick of sin’).

The idea we were given was that Owen’s disgust was with war as such, with war as an imperialist phenomenon, and in particular with the ‘British Establishment’s War’ that Owen ‘had’ to fight in.  One should remember that the early 1960s were when the First World War was rubbished by Alan Clark, Joan Littlewood, A.J.P. Taylor and others, and kitchen sink drama specifically ridiculed Edwardian values and the Edwardian military.

So that was it: Horace’s ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country’) was a lie, it was in no circumstances right to take part in war, Owen was a tragic victim of the Edwardian upper classes.

Even at fourteen I was uneasy with this for a number of reasons. Could poetry be that simple? I mean, we all knew that war was horrible and should be avoided; this was hardly a new, profound, or interesting message. Was that all Owen had to say? Then I assumed that Owen had joined up willingly, because he did so before conscription. (But I did not know at the time that he even insisted on going back to fight in 1918 after being treated for shell-shock in Blighty for over a year, could have stayed on home-duty, and won the Military Cross before being killed on 4 November 1918.) So he must have felt that the war was worth fighting; no-one was forcing him to go, but something was impelling him to. And finally, I thought, everyone believes we were morally impelled to defeat the Nazis, so why was it wrong to stop the Germans crushing countries in World War I?

At fourteen, of course, you don’t have the experience and confidence to say to yourself — let alone to your teacher — ‘no, poetry isn’t that simple, it isn’t journalism or propaganda, there must be more to this poem’; but I doubt whether I returned to Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ for fifty years. I simply rated other poems of his, especially ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Greater Love’, ‘Futility’, or ‘Strange Meeting’, much higher. Incidentally, a couple of years later our French master gave us a jolt by lambasting those who reel off Horace’s line as an English trochaic heptameter (Dulchee et deecorum est pro pattria moree) instead of eliding the end of ‘dulce’ and ‘decorum’ as Latin scansion requires, hovering over the caesura, and putting the right long-vowel stresses on patria and mori. Owen’s rhyme glory/mori suggests he knew how it should be read.

In my post of 17 February 2016 I defended ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, particularly the ‘devil’s sick’ stanza, against what seems to have been Seamus Heaney’s belief that it is bad art. I now fancy I perceive that the moral balance of the poem is so fine, so ambiguous, so apparently paradoxical, that it is not surprising if the poem has been publicly reduced to a mere ‘anti-war poem’.

The problem, it seems to me, arises from Owen’s contextualisation of the poem; the fact that he sets it all between the first four words of Horace’s Latin line as his title and the full Latin line as his ending. When you read the title, you get something positive: ‘It is sweet and fitting’. Something ‘sweet and fitting’ has got to be good and right. If you add mentally ‘to die for one’s country’, you may even think: ‘Yes, it is good and right to die defending your country’s values in a just war.’ However, we know that the poem was originally dedicated (sarcastically) to the verse-publicist Jessie Pope who ‘with such high zest’ (l. 25) in the popular press urged young men to sign up for ‘the game’ as she called it, echoing Henry Newbolt’s most famous poem. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is just the kind of Edwardian upper-class cliché-quote that she and other white-featherists could have used. If we know that the poem addresses Pope’s obtuse glibness, we interpret its title negatively: ‘Dulce et decorum est’ becomes an expression of jingoism and even aggression. Indeed, the context in Horace’s ode seems to be not a defensive war but a war of Roman imperial aggression and colonialism. But Owen removed the dedication to Jessie Pope and that leaves us with the positive reading of Owen’s title: ‘It is good and right to die defending one’s country.’ Naturally, then, when the statement ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is reprised at the very end and we are told it is ‘the old Lie’, we are most likely to think that it is the content of the statement that is being attacked as mendacious, not its fraudulent use by jingoists and white-featherists. We forget, perhaps, that Owen has accused Jessie Pope (‘My friend’) of telling this ‘Lie’ to ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’ — in other words it is not necessarily the content of the line that is mendacious but the way she and others exploit it. After all, Owen volunteered to die fighting a (defensive) war, so how could he believe the statement was a lie?

Yet I fully concede that he does call it ‘the old Lie’! This is what I meant by the poem being so finely balanced. He cannot, because of his own act of moral choice, possibly believe that the statement in the sense of ‘die for one’s country in a just defensive war’ is wrong, but neither does he quite leave us thinking the statement is wrong because it is immorally misused by the likes of Pope and particularly in the cause of aggressive war. Alas, Horace’s line as quoted doesn’t specify whether Horace is talking about defensive (just) or aggressive (unjust) war.

The paradox — that it is simultaneously right and a lie to give one’s life for one’s country — is, I believe, contained in the word ‘mori’. If this infinitive is understood as perfective (‘to die’) then Horace’s line is just a very abstract statement that it is dangerous to read particulars into: ‘To die for one’s country is a sweet and fitting thing.’ If you believe, as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and George Calderon did, that the soil of Britain was worth dying for because certain values grew in it, then you could agree with Horace’s statement using the perfective infinitive, ‘to die’. However, the second half of the poem is devoted to describing how horrific dying in war can be, and how witnessing it happening can traumatise your fellow-soldiers for life (‘In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me’). Owen has shown that if you take ‘mori’ as an imperfective infinitive, ‘to be dying’, then Horace’s line is a lie, because the act of dying for one’s country is sheer Hell (‘devil’s sick of sin’). Owen may, I’m sure did, believe that to die for one’s country in a war for its survival was right, good, ‘sweet’, but he knew that the actual dying for it stank.

They shall grow…not old.

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12 Responses to Dulc(e) et decor(um) est…

  1. Jim D G Miles says:

    That “To die for one’s country is a sweet and fitting thing”, presented in various forms in the above entry, is somewhat reminiscent of the J. M. Barrie “to die will be an awfully big adventure”, mentioned previously on Calderonia here and here. Thinking Emoji

  2. Clare Hopkins says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for your very helpful analysis of Owen’s poem. Thank you, Jim, for your reminder about J. M. Barrie. (And for introducing the emoji to Calderonia!) I find myself not so much comparing as contrasting. There is a world of difference between the noble self-sacrifice that may result from believing ‘the soil of Britain was worth dying for because certain values grew in it,’ and the careless self-centredness of embarking on a solo adventure from which nobody ever reports back. I followed the links to the related blog posts of September 1914 and March 1916 with interest. Patrick, I hope you won’t mind my observing that in the latter you would seem to have been mistaken when you wondered if George was suffering from ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. According to Wikipedia, this refers to individuals who do not want to grow up, rather than those who think that ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure.’ (Although of course it is a characteristic of children that they cannot grasp the permanence of death.) There should though be a name for the alternative syndrome that George was surely suffering from – that seemingly ubiquitous Edwardian delusion that ‘to go to War [would] be an awfully big adventure’.

    I’d be interested to know more about the Roman view of pro patria mori. But when I looked online it quickly became apparent that Horace’s famous line is now almost entirely owned by Owen. (Take note, anyone who believes that WW1 poets will forever maintain their present prominence in British culture and education. So they thought about Virgil & Co, a century ago.)

    Googling J. M. Barrie was more fruitful. Although if I knew how to attach an emoji to a comment on WordPress, mine would be looking both startled and disapproving. I was curious as to whether Barrie conceived the screwed up eponymous hero of his most famous work before or after the First World War – and was engulfed by disturbing speculation about the playwright’s private life. Anyhow, Peter Pan was first performed on 27 December 1904. Did Kittie and George ever go to see it – perhaps with some friends’ children in tow? Did George and James ever meet? Did George have an opinion about Barrie’s 1913 knighthood? And Patrick, while you have been carrying out your exhaustive exploration of modern biography, have you encountered Piers Dudgeon’s Captivated?

    • Patrick Miles says:

      Dear Clare, my utmost thanks to you for continuing to support Calderonia so stalwartly and steadfastly in its staggering fourth year. I am extremely grateful to you, and to Jim, for pointing out the other reasons I speculated on for George et al. signing up voluntarily. You are both, of course, right. In the universities particularly, I think, many adults deplored the numbers of zealous young men who were, in effect, throwing up everything in order to ‘have a go at’ the Germans. It approximated to jingoism and adventurism; I think one can say that. At the same time, George had foreseen war with Germany by about 1912, amazed his dinner-party guests long before 4 August 1914 by saying ‘England only ever went to war for an idea’, and seems to have been swayed more by his idea (‘decency’, ‘civilisation’, ‘freedom and democracy’, a different future world) than by his visceral and possibly even Crusading emotions.

      Alas, when I wrote about a ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’, I thought I was inventing the thing! It always pays to Google first! As you say, sensu stricto PPS refers to ‘individuals who do not want to grow up’. So I propose ‘ABA(W) Syndrome’ for people who throw overwhelming odds of risk to the winds in the name of Awfully Big Adventure (War). But it has been suggested that for Peter Pan growing up was the equivalent of death. Conversely, it seems terrible but for many of these young public school soldiers dying was the equivalent of growing up… (They acquired adult posthumous personas.)

      I had a similar experience to you, trying to find out more about the Romans’ understanding of Horace’s line. I take my old Latin course off the shelves, however, and it confirms my memory that we were taught that they had a somewhat fascistic approach to ‘patriotism’ — ‘my country right or wrong’, ‘a Roman soldier/officer/citizen unquestioningly sacrifices his life for the fatherland (Emperor)’. Not so different from the Victorian idea of fighting for Empire, perhaps, but I think that was muted by 1914. There is a clear classical and quasi-jingoistic element to Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets, but neither Thomas nor Owen joined up in the ‘afflatus’ of 1914, they thought harder about it first.

      It is really very curious that there are no references in the Calderons’ extant correspondence to their seeing, appreciating, or taking their numerous godchildren to see Peter Pan, neither is Barrie’s address in Kittie’s celebrity-studded address book. I think there is a reference to ‘Pan’ in a letter of George’s, which I took to mean Peter, but I don’t think it was more than that. On the other hand, he undoubtedly saw it and its success was surely in his and William Caine’s mind when they tried to approach its theatrical presenter, the American Charles Frohman, about taking on their children’s fairytale script The Brave Little Tailor in 1914. Nothing came of this, because the German source of the script put it off limits after 4 August, and Frohman went down on the Lusitania in May 1915.

      I’m so grateful to you for pointing me towards Piers Dudgeon’s book about Barrie. I will certainly read it. From the WEB reviews etc it sounds as though it might be a conspiracy theory — endlessly verifiable by this and that, but not actually falsifiable. However, I must say this: as a child, I personally found Peter Pan so sinister I wanted nothing to do with it after the film! Lewis Carroll, I felt, was weird but fundamentally amiable, Peter Pan fundamentally sinister…

    • Jim D G Miles says:

      As you probably surmised Ms Hopkins, I am an emoji addict…to the point of actually posting a straight up image of the one I wanted to use, rather than being able to deploy it natively…alas.

      Some of the common emojis can be copied and pasted, but the “thinking” face I used wasn’t amenable to that and I suspect that “both startled and disapproving” is likewise not easily WordPress-able.

      I cannot pick out for sure what the “startled and disapproving” emoji ought to be, but perhaps this fits the bill:

      Regarding Peter Pan Syndrome I agree the term literally means the fear of growing up, and “to die will be an awfully big adventure” does not – on the surface – naturally transfer.

      However, if we read “to die” not as the literal death of Pan but the “death” of his childhood [innocence] then it perhaps all makes rather more sense.

      • Clare Hopkins says:

        Thank you Jim, that’s perfect. [types smiley face emoticon – let’s see if WordPress can cope!] 🙂

        You call yourself an emoji addict, but I suspect you would be more properly described as an expert in this universal language of succinct emotional expression. I fear I am too old to learn any new language fluently, but I am most definitely a fan of this one. My sister once sent me an entire communication composed of emoji; it was beautifully eloquent. Our world has at its fingertips a means of communication that is simple, rapid, clear, honest, and international – what’s not to like?

        At risk of sounding flippant (and of wandering far, far away from the subject of George Calderon), I wonder how Brexit negotiations would be going if both sides were forced to communicate using only emoji-studded texts…

        • Patrick Miles says:

          This fascinating new subject (is it a form of theatrical communication? in Brexit negotiations would it be used dishonestly? can an emoji dissemble?) is not at all far away from the subject of George Calderon: I believe he was the first person in English to use the phrase “emotional intelligence” (1911)…

  3. Damian Grant says:

    Patrick: I am not Latinist enough to follow in the furrow you cut, very neatly, between the perfect infinitive and imperfect infinitive constructions on Horace’s ‘mori’; but the way you use this to prise open the contradictory/complementary readings of this celebrated and oversimplified poem is I find admirable. (And it’s surely surprising that Heaney, who had to tread his own stepping stones carefully, couldn’t better negotiate the poem.) It seems to me that you manage to demonstrate how Owen succeeds in taking the quotation from Horace both ways: literally, in praise of one’s duty to fight for one’s country–‘I have my duty to perform towards War’ (18 Feb 1918)– and ironically, in the hallucinatory awareness of the dying this duty may exact. Defying those who trivialize and mechanize this duty, this difficult moral choice, Owen has his quote and eats it.

    It is no doubt a matter of some frustration that in the letter to his mother of 17 October 1917, where he comments on this poem, half a page is missing after he repeats the words ‘Sweet! And decorous!’ with exclamation marks; but we owe the poem our own best (and unassisted) understanding. As Owen once concluded a letter to his mother which contains some harsh recollections, ‘I had meant this to be a consoling kind of letter; and if you read it rightly, it will prove so.’ (22 Feb 1918). Reading poems rightly is even more difficult (if not for Jesse Pope’s “Simple Rhymes for Stirring Times”, 1916); but an awareness, such as you demonstrate in your Post, of moral balance, ambiguity, and paradox, is an essential part of it. This habit of thought is evidenced, and supported, in another letter, from February 1918: ‘There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer.’

    It is also interesting, I think, that another letter which contains more of Owen’s self-contradiction (‘I hate washy pacifists as much as I hate whiskied prussianists’) ends with this observation: ‘The figure of Caliban at Somerset Place affects my imagination even more than the dainty Ariel.’ (2 October 1917) Don’t we hear behind this Keats’s famous declaration about the poetical character, which ‘has no character – it enjoys light and shade…It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than its taste for the bright one, because they both end in speculation.’ (But not speculation in armaments, needless to say.)

    Fair is foul, and foul is fair. For Owen, as for many (poets and others), war brought out almost inevitably what was best and worst in human beings. If Owen had a duty towards the War, he also had a duty towards poetry; which was to ensure that his witness was not blinkered like a war horse, but looked courageously both ways.

  4. Damian Grant says:

    PM asks, ‘can emoji dissemble?’
    The very idea makes one tremble;
    The sulk and the smile
    Are as plain as a dial,
    But what would a Janus resemble?

    • Patrick Miles says:

      Felicitous facility as ever, Damian! Thank you! In my Comment, ‘would it be used dishonestly’ should, of course, have read ‘be used diplomatically’… Goodness, yes, what one would give to have the rest of that page of W.O.’s letter.

  5. Clare Hopkins says:

    Hello Damian, may I ask a specific question about your tremendously interesting first comment on this post? I was fascinated to learn that Wilfred Owen wrote a letter to his mother, commenting on ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’… Rather, I was brought up short by the information that “half a page is missing after he repeats the words ‘Sweet! And decorous!’”

    Surely this cannot be a coincidence! I believe officers censored their own letters. But did Mrs Owen find her son’s views about or details of the satanic evil of war simply too shocking to risk them being read by anyone else? Or did he express himself so beautifully that the rest of the page was given away as a keepsake to some careless family member? (If the answer is, as is likely, ‘I don’t know’, then do you have a hunch?)

    Meanwhile Christmas is coming…. Is there an edition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry and letters that you would particularly recommend?

  6. Damian Grant says:

    And hello to you Clare; I’m delighted to reply to your question–as far as I’m able. The information about the ‘half sheet missing’ from this letter comes from Wilfred Owen: Selected Letters (ed. Julian Bell, Oxford, 1985), p. 283. This letter to his mother (one of 600 he wrote her) is dated Tuesday ?16 October 1917. Bell’s selection is drawn from the Collected Letters, edited by Harold Owen, Owen’s younger brother, and Julian Bell in 1967 (which I have not consulted).

    The regrettable fact about omissions from Owen’s letters is that Harold Owen was himself responsible for many of the excisions; made one understands to protect Owen’s reputation–from what one can only guess. Biographers Jon Stallworthy and Dominic Hibberd take him to task for this (Hibberd more severely). Whether this ‘missing’ half page comes into this category, I really don’t know; though a real Owen scholar might.

    For an edition of the poems, the most current is Stallworthy’s The Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto, 1985), now in its 25th impression! Stallworthy’s Note to ‘Dulce…’ here (pp 117-8) includes the quotation from the letter to his mother, but makes no reference to the missing half page.

    An autobiographical note to conclude. I very much regret the fact, now, that when I came to Manchester as a junior lecturer in the 1960s, early Owen critic Dennis Welland, who knew Harold Owen well, was then Professor of American Studies, and a very approachable character. But my own enthusiasm for Owen had not yet caught (though I remember well enough marking A level papers in the late 60s where ‘Dulce…’ was the text set for commentary), and so I missed out on a golden opportunity…to answer your question with more authority!

  7. Clare Hopkins says:

    Oh Harold!

    Very many thanks Damian for answering my question so promptly and fully. I just went online to see where Wilfred Owen’s letters ended up – the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library at the University of Texas. Their webpage says, ‘many of the letters to the Owen family have the deletions made by Harold Owen and noted in the Collected Letters.’ Thrown on the fire then, most likely… and yet…. and yet… what a holy grail those missing sheets would be!

    I don’t suppose Harold Owen ever regretted his instinctive protection of his elder brother’s reputation. But like you, I have regrets… A regular guest at our family table as I grew up was an elderly and lonely neighbour called George. His 80th birthday coincided with my father’s 50th, so he must have turned 18 in August 1916. “George fought on the Somme you know,” said my mother regularly, “you ought to ask him about it.” But I never did.

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