Dulce et Decorum Est

Discussion questions and related resources for the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen fought for the British army in World War I. Many of his poems are about his perspective and experiences as a soldier in one of history’s most horrific wars.

Keep the SOAPSTone (Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Speaker, Tone) method in mind as you read and reflect on the poem.

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-shod¹. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells² dropping softly 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.³ —
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, guttering⁴, 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
Bitter as the cud⁵
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.⁶

¹ shod: shoed; i.e., fitted with shoes
² World War I was characterized by the first widespread use of chemical weapons in the form of gas (such as phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas).
³ lime: the chemical calcium oxide, not the fruit
⁴ gutter: to burn weakly and unevenly, like a candle about to go out
cud: partially digested substance that ruminants (e.g., cows and goats) chew on for the second time after it has been in the first stomach
⁶ “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is a line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace’s Odes (iii 2.13). The line can be rendered in English as “It is sweet and appropriate to die for one’s country,” or “It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland.” [from Wikipedia]

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. What is the subject of the poem? Discuss the topics the poem touches on.

2. Who is the speaker in the poem? Describe the poem’s tone (the speaker’s attitude toward the subject). Cite specific details that establish the identity of the speaker and the tone of the poem.

3. Discuss the speaker’s description of the soldiers in the first stanza. What examples of figurative language (e.g., metaphors and similes) can you find, and how do they contribute to this description?

4. Why do the soldiers scramble to put their masks on, and what happens to one soldier who isn’t fast enough? How does the speaker convey the horror of this fate? Discuss the effect of the following elements of this description:

  • the expression “ecstasy of fumbling” (line 9)
  • the similes in lines 12-14
  • the word guttering in line 16
  • the word flung in line 18
  • other instances of figurative language and diction in the last stanza

5. How is the speaker affected by what he has witnessed?

6. Why does the speaker say “you would not tell with such high zest[…]/The old Lie” (lines 25-27)? Explain the extended conditional statement in lines 17-28. How do these lines relate to audience and purpose? What exactly is the lie—why is lie capitalized, and why is it expressed in Latin? Why is it told with “high zest” (line 25), and why are children deceived by it?

7. Discuss the form of the poem—elements such as meter, structure, sound devices, and rhyme scheme. How does the poem’s form contribute to its meaning and its rhetorical effect?

Related Resources

“Dulce et Decorum Est”: Poem and Discussion Questions (PDF)

The Poetry Foundation: Wilfred Owen
(Biography, selected poems, related content)

Poems by Wilfred Owen (free e-book from Project Gutenberg)

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

The Complete Wilfred Owen: (e-book): Apparently the most complete collection of Owen’s work

Gas Warfare in the First World War (YouTube): Please note that this documentary, as one would expect, contains disturbing content.

Chemical weapons in World War I (Wikipedia)

PDF version

Notes and questions © 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.