I had the opportunity to watch a BBC Four documentary about Wilfred Owen, the First World War poet. I first came into contact with his poetry at school. It became very popular in the 1960s on account of the Vietnam War. I had no idea that he was now the second most studied English poet (after Shakespeare).
His works, though few in number, are very powerful. His mother received the telegram informing her that he had been killed at the front on Armistice Day, when millions of British people were out in the streets celebrating the end of the “war to end all wars.”
The following is one of Owen’s best-known poems. The rest are worth checking out. If you can get beyond the heartrending events he describes, they are very moving – possibly the best war poetry that exists in the English language. They convey to us the unimaginable suffering of the soldiers in the trenches.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out 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 gas-shells 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.–
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
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.