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.