The Purloined Poem – Dulce et Decorum est.
A few days ago Bookin’ with Sunny published Neal Ferguson’s review of Richard Holmes’s Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, and given our world headlines taking up hard print, e-print, and audio sources, I thought I’d add a few lines to his already excellent review.
In his review, Neal mentions World War I British poet Wilfred Owen and his classic anti-war poem, Dulce et Decorum est. Let’s face it, not all our readers are history buffs, and that goes ditto for poetry lovers, but this is a poem that, given today’s headlines, is deserving of being read again for many of us and for the first time for others.
A little background: Horace, a Latin lyrical poet, wrote a poem (Odes Bk.III, No. 2) extolling patriotism and the glory of war. It was the first line in the fourth stanza that said it all, in Latin: “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” Translation: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” This sentiment was written in 35 BC. A lot of soldiers had fought and died for their countries by the time Owen penned his verse in the summer of 1917 while recovering from shell shock in a War Hospital in Scotland. All writers borrow from one another, and thank goodness they do. We should also be thankful that authors like Richard Holmes can give a more nuanced and varied picture of the Tommy’s experience in World War I. – Sunny Solomon
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 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 some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.