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Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’

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‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke are poems about war which treat their subjects differently. Both poems are examples of the authors’ perceptions of war; Owen’s being about its bitter reality and Brooke’s about the glory of dying for one’s country. The poets express their sentiments on the subject matter in terms of language, tone, rhyme, rhythm and structure. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has very effective language by using diverse methods such as alliteration, onomatopoeia and diction. The tone is unyielding and vivid imagery is used to reinforce it, primarily by means of compelling metaphors and enduring similes. The rhyme scheme is regular with very little change and helps establish the rhythm.

The poem is divided into four stanzas, the first two of which set and develop the scene, while the third and fourth convey the abiding memory and offer a commentary on what has preceded. ‘The Soldier’ is a Petrarchan sonnet divided into two stanzas. The initial octave lays out Brooke’s thoughts and feelings regarding his subject, with the sestet offering a definitive final comment. The tone along with the rhyme is very regular, helping to convey the poet’s attitude. It has a continually lilting rhythm which reinforces the latter.

There are a number of similarities between ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Soldier’. The titles of each poem are misleading, in the sense that what they suggest is contradicted in the content of the poem. ‘The Soldier’ evokes and conjures up melancholy, or a wasted life. But the poem itself revels in the fact that fighting in war for the sole purpose of defending one’s country is memorable, hence encouraging the act “And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”. On the other hand, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ brings about jingoism, that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.

Though the poem in itself reveals the cold truth about war with resentment, therefore discouraging the act “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”. Alliteration is used in both poems effectively to establish rhythm and reinforce the tone. The rhyme scheme each poet uses are identical in that they are regular and have alternate rhymes. This helps to emphatically set the rhythm and lays the foundation for the nature of the tone. Moreover, another similarity is that both poets have employed a structure whereby the level of detail in terms of imagery and language relating to their subject intensifies as the poems progress. This is proceeded in both poems with a definitive commentary that forcefully conveys their point.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a lucid protest against the unspeakable horrors of war. This poem tells of the true effects war has on soldiers by graphically recounting their barbaric slaughter to present a clear and irrefutable depiction of horror to the people who still believe that sacrificing ones own life was tolerable. Among those people the poem was targeted at was the government, tabloid pro-war poets, particularly Jessie Pope, who were unmindful of the outrageous situation in which young men were being sent and practically sacrificed. Truth is an extremely powerful tool, one that Owen uses through his personal experiences to present an incredibly realistic image, and sets out to shock his readers. In the first stanza of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the reader is drawn in with “Bent double”. This gives the piece a sense of immediacy which is deeply rooted in the detailed description of the experience that follows. There has been no prior introduction or scene setting, just these short, sharp words that have an instant impact, almost like a gunshot. The whole stanza is conveying the scene by the use of vivid imagery.

The similes of battle weary soldiers “like old beggars under sacks… coughing like hags” convey the restrictive movement within the soldiers and the suffocating environment they are experiencing throughout war. The term “…under sacks” also gives the reader an inkling of the fact that they are filled with trepidation of what lies ahead. Though discomforted by the suffering war inevitably involves, and their bodies withered by the harsh brutality of battle, thinking war was behind them, they still kept guard… “Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs… Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on”. Yet again the reader is drawn in the graphic war scene, made more vivid by his own involvement… “we cursed through the sludge”.

Fatigue is emphatically reinforced by language such as “trudge” and “lame”, likewise “Drunk with fatigue” is a vivid image, illuminating the scene as they struggle through and endeavour to put war behind them. Onomatopoeic words such as “sludge and “trudge” help to capture the anguish which is experienced by the soldiers, furthermore these help to reinforce the rhyme scheme, which is as regular as a drum beat. The alliteration in “Knock-kneed” reinforces this drum beat rhythm emphasising the battle weariness of the soldiers, and intensifying the memory of war. Aside from this alliteration, the way Owen creates rhythm most effectively is through the pauses which litter the stanza. We can see this in “All went lame; All went blind; Drunk with fatigue; death even to the hoots Of tired…” This pause effect has a staccato feel about the stanza, but unrelenting. As the soldiers become “deaf” to the eternal racket of “Five-Nines”, this is ominous of the fact Owen prepares the reader for a pre-cursor to a shift in rhythm which forms the basis for a shift in tone.

Enter the second stanza, and Owen has recreated the start of a gas attack “Gas! GAS! Quick boys!”(direct speech). The tone dramatically shifts to a completely chaotic nature, with the use of exclamation marks and short words that up the tempo. Notice that “Gas” was called out twice, but Owen did not write those words simply for the visual impact on the page. He shows that the man has to shout “Gas” louder a second time, not only because his fellow soldiers are too tired to hear, his main purpose was to tell us that maybe the first cry was the instant, almost lethargic reaction to something he had seen a dozen times. But that second calling is a bellow, a true warning. He did not mean for the two words to be read in the same way. The frantic scene is established by the very little pauses represented in the words such as ‘ecstasy’, ‘stumbling’ and ‘fumbling’, all of which embody movement in a state of panic and confusion, which perfectly encapsulates the fluctuating nature of war, caught between the first and second stanzas.

The word ‘ecstasy’ could really be referring to the soldiers’ inconceivable emotions, the terror, the most heightened of sensations. The ‘fumbling’ truly signifies the soldiers state of panic, while conjuring up an image of the desperation amid the soldiers in reaching for their masks. Owen then writes about the bitter scene of a man who hesitates in putting his gas mask on in time. Owen cannot deliver what mask less man is “yelling out” for, help. The soldier is then consumed by gas, and said to be “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” Use of the word fire makes one imagine hell. This man’s life may well be slipping away from him, and experiencing ‘hell’ so to speak. Owen then softens the tone with a dream like passage, the mild consonants and softer sounds of the words create a subdued effect “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light”.

This shift from the callous reality of battle to a state of comfort and back is very effective. This little passage is suggestive of reprieve, soldiers are now seeing the horror from the outside, safeguarded from the infectious green gas. When one is consumed with gas, they are in effect ‘drowned’ as the gas fills their lungs and burns the insides, and so a reference to ‘sea’ (water) is more effective than gas, hence the term ‘drowning’ has more prominence, and indicating the might of the ocean, in a ‘storm’ renders the fellow soldiers powerless to perform their task of rescuing the ‘drowning’ man “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning’.

The third stanza is completely short, to round off Owen’s abiding memory “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”. Adjectives ending in ‘…ing’ inadvertently require the reader feel part of Owen’s trauma, as the sound of the ‘g’ is guttural, mimicking the suffering of the soldier caught in the green gas. The structure within the first three stanza’s are important, they are relating to the experience of war through his eyes. Consequently, they are written in first person, in the manner of a letter to give a greater effect. In the first stanza “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks… we cursed through the sludge,” the situation is immediately given, moreover, an instantaneous impact is made so that the effect of their messages is greater. The second stanza shows the ease of dying on the front, the representation of a soldier caught in gas is Owen’s own personal view, again, this personalised view makes the death of the soldier have a far greater result.

If the death were described in third person, the reader would be isolated from the action.The fourth stanza bears an important change in perspective, from first person to third person (from ‘I’ to ‘you’), and is relating the memory of the ‘man’ in ever more detail back to the reader. The last verse is significantly more graphic, almost certainly to shock the reader into a sense of truth. It is rather like a derogatory commentary. By means of vivid imagery and metaphors “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin… Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud” Owen expresses his anger at this waste of life shown in his description of the man’s suffering, it all seems unfair, ‘obscene’ as it were. The poem explicitly portrays the dilapidation of soldiers on the front and a dramatic example is given of the gross death caused by the gas, alliteration is used to emphasise the unsightly state of an individual and the overall dilemma of certain pro war society “Of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues,-”.

Ironically Owen calls the pro-war poet ‘My friend”, this implies his fellow poet, Jessie Pope, rather than a tangible friend. “My friend, would you not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory,” Owen aims this comment towards pro-war poets alike, to show that it is their responsibility to speak the truth, but also suggests that pro-war poets are most influential over the youth, and it is they who may be adversely effected. “Children” suggests the young blooded soldiers enrolling to fight who crave for success, and their duty to the writings of poets, but previous passages show in explicit detail the truth about “glory” and the bitterness faced by the youth. These two lines alone show that suffering could have been avoided if the ignorance of pro-war poets was less tyrannical but more concentrated on bitter emotions directed towards the war.

Almost with a sigh he breathes; if you knew the true nature and bitter reality of war, you would not mollify “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori”. Which means, “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country” Owen chose to say this phrase in Latin, a dead language used in public school in his day, to convey how out of touch, how ‘dead’ the old system was, predominantly when it spread the “old Lie”, and now that we live in a new age, this political fervour must be disposed of if there is to be any hope for the future.

There are various differences between ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Soldier’. While ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ conveys the ruthless reality of war and mocks the very act of patriotic death, Brooke uses ‘The Soldier’ to stress it is undeniably a honour to die for ones country, in this case ‘England’, and that it is ever more sweeter IF during war. To build on tone, Owen uses harsher, more repulsive onomatopoeic words that give off ‘g’, ‘c’ (k) and a lot of hissing ‘s’ sounds, which provide a cutting edge “knock-kneed… sludge… trudge… guttering… choking… gargling”. But Brooke uses softer words, such that give off ‘f’ sounds, adding to the sense of euphony “foreign-field”. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has a bitter and cynical tone helped by changes in rhythm which travel back and forth to make Owen’s doubly atmospheric.

Both poets’ use ‘death’ to their advantage, but this example serves different purposes in the two poems. Owen uses a graphic example where he remorsefully describes the death caused by a gas attack, exposing to his readers and pro-war poets that war is an ugly, brutal and detestable business. Yet Brooke uses a different approach, and expresses that not only is it every man’s duty to fight and die for his country to preserve perfection, but once dead, the ashes shall physically enrich the already ‘rich’ soil “In that rich earth, a richer dust concealed”. And all ‘English’ values that the motherland bore will live on in one form or another. This way Brooke tries to convince that there is a deeper meaning to what lies on the surface of war. Religious undertones also lie beneath each poem. Owen uses ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ to portray and war as the epitome of hell, juxtaposing the devil over the gassed man. In contrast, uses ‘The Soldier’ to convey ‘England’ rather like ‘heaven’, and that it is righteous to defend such land in war.

The Soldier is one of many poems written at the beginning of war (before ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’) to attract young men who saw enrolment as an exciting venture enabling them to travel the world. Many were enlisted as poems such as ‘The Soldier’ captured their optimistic, naïve and chauvinistic attitude. Brooke welcomes patriotic death in this sonnet, and shows he feels privileged to have been bought up in and ‘by’ England, believing it was a blessing. He invokes the ideas such as sacred memories of the dead spiritual cleansing, and a hero’s immortal legacy. Though this poem is a sonnet, it is not addressed to a loved one but to his country. In the first stanza, Brooke gives the impression of England being a timeless, idyllic and tranquil country “If I should die, think only this of me…Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home”, where England is personified as being a mother to him and others “A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware”, presenting motherly images of nourishment “Gave, once, her flowersto love, her ways to roam”, indicating in one way or another that he owes England his life, his soul, and that by fighting for his country,  he is simply paying ‘her’ back.

The poem uses alliteration to establish the lilting rhythm “foreign-field”. This light and flowing rhythm, deeply rooted with a feeling of love is conveyed by the repetitive use of ‘England’ “That is forever England…A dust whom England bore… A body of England’s, breathing English air”, is representing himself as highly patriotic, showing a love for ones country. Brooke also conveys his love for England by stressing the word ‘rich’ “That there’s some corner in a foreign field That is forever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”. It seems that he has carved up his own England in the ‘foreign field’ where he may “die”, but his spirit of England will live on in the form of ‘richer dust’, which refers to his body. Brooke intends to say that England will live on in the shape of his ‘body’, the same England that bore his body into the fine man. Brooke’s message in this poem is that if he should die in that ‘foreign-field’ it shall gain these English blessing, passing them onto the ground on which his ashes lie, making the earth around him richer. Transience is conveyed through his mortal body. The feel of the poem is continually lilting up and up.

In the second stanza, Brooke brings a finality to his belief that even though he is now at ‘rest’ in the ‘foreign field’, his love for England has “shed away all evil”, and is now “A pulse in the eternal mind”. In the last four lines of the first stanza, he has described that his thoughts of England shall live on ‘forever’ in his body, that in a “corner of a foreign field” these thoughts ‘gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”. If he should die, his spirit should live on in the shape of England. It feels as though that no matter what, a conquest for England has been achieved. The tone is rather imperialistic. Brooke has relatively sanctified war in the case of protecting his motherland, his ‘heaven’, and the soldiers patriotically immolate themselves for England in war. Towards the end, nostalgia is given by the lilting rhythm, the eternal happiness. The last three lines serve as a comment, but serve the purpose to reinforce this nostalgia and fervour of England. Permanence is signified through the eternal love and memories of England, his lifelong English values.

I think ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ served its purpose more successfully than ‘The Soldier’. ‘The Soldier’ uses simple language to create a serene poem, so it can be read by the masses, resulting in a prevalent effect on people. But the complexity in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ asks more from the reader, however the message is clear. There are hidden meanings in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ that make it far superior to that of the oblivious pro-war poets, in turn greatly increasing the message’s effect. ‘The Soldier’ has undemanding content, as there is no need to catch the interest of fellow poets, hence, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ appeals to a wider audience.

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