Monday, April 16, 2007

Wilfred Owen: Dulce Et Decorum Est

A few posts back I wrote about the passing of a hero of mine, the subversive absurdist writer Kurt Vonnegut, best known for his anti-war novel. Not really knowing why, I titled that post with the well-worn line from a Horace Ode, the one which was told to so many English children before they were sacrificed on the altar of a dying Empire's pride. At the time, the line simply surfaced in my mind, somehow previously connected or at least located nearby in memory. It was the closing, knock-out blow in a Wilfred Owen poem, the Wilfred Owen who became the friend of Siegfried Sassoon, trench-dwellers and then fellow-travelers in World War One who met on shell-shocked convalescent psychiatric leave. A lot of effort was put forth to launder their friendship into something more publicly acceptable, but the two poets were more than only friends. Sassoon also introduced Owen into a talented literary circle, who taught him technique and turns of phrase, presumably the consonant para-rhymes which became his signature and elevated his works to a perch upon which school-children would later alight.

A friend from the former Empire, whom I refer to as Al C., caught the reference. It seems he, too, when in high school was made to read what was for there and then one of the most potent anti-war elixirs written. Wilfred Owen had a nervous breakdown, and to heal himself, he forced himself to go back and write about what he had seen. Then he went back to lead his men and face his demons despite his disgust for the war and the people running it, and on top of Sassoon's strenuous efforts to stop him. He died leading his men across a canal to take an enemy position, posthumously winning the VC and promotion to Lieutenant. News of his death reached his home town of Shropshire just as its church bells started to ring in celebration of the Armistice.

I went back and looked up what is considered to be the greatest anti-war poem of the past century. It is about a Weapon of Mass Destruction, then called something less euphemistic. The painting above is by John Singer Sargent, and a much larger canvas version hangs in London, in the War Museum. It is titled "Gassed:"

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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.

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