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Dulce et decorum erat?: Perspectives on WWI in poetry

To mark the 100th anniversary of WWI, Claire Morris examines the work of poets Jessie Pope and Wilfred Owen

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This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, which would last four years and claim the lives of almost one million British people.

The war left behind a great legacy in terms of how it changed and developed attitudes towards warfare and politics, but as well as this, some of the finest poetry in Britain’s history was produced during this turbulent time.

What is remarkable about the poems written between 1914 and 1918 is the diverse range of attitudes towards the war they convey; from the early patriotic poems commissioned by the government and the media, to the later more tragic poems by the soldiers who had witnessed the horrors of the fighting first-hand.

Early poems such as Jessie Pope’s “The Call” of 1915 and “Who’s for the Game” of 1916 highlight the extent to which enlisting was glorified. Lines such as “Who’s going out to win? /And who wants to save his skin” in “The Call” present a choice: either you enlist, or you’re labeled a coward.

Pope’s poems seem light-hearted on the surface, but they were actually powerful pieces of propaganda designed to encourage men to fight. Many men were probably persuaded by poems of this kind, and went away to what they believed to be a heroic, glorious war. But the horrors that awaited them in the trenches were a far cry from “the game” that Pope describes.

Poems such as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” of 1917 present a much more accurate depiction of the harrowing realities of life as a soldier. Owen was Second Lieutenant with the Manchester Regiment and was posted to France in 1916. A year later, he was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to recuperate at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Writing poetry was a form of therapy for Owen; he was encouraged to record his experiences through his poems, which resulted in very real, moving accounts of his suffering on the front line.

“Dulce Et Decorum Est” is full of vivid – and in some places gruesome – imagery. It depicts the soldiers “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,” exhausted, dejected and hopeless. Owen uses a sickening simile to portray how one of his comrades dies right in front of him after being subjected to a gas attack, “flound’ring like a man in fire.”

At the end of the poem, Owen is directly addressing the patriots who believe the war to be glorious and heroic: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” He is trying to shock them, to make them imagine the realities the soldiers are facing, instead of telling people that the war is a noble cause.

Owen is condemning the work of poets such as Jessie Pope. The title of his work shows this, the phrase written in full in the final few lines of the poem is “Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori,” which translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Owen appears to be using this phrase in an ironic sense, telling people not to believe this “old lie.”

Owen’s work is amongst some of the most emotive, tragic writing of the period and remains well loved by the nation and valued amongst First World War literature today, perhaps more so than the propagandist work of Jessie Pope.

Owens died in action a week before Armistice Day in 1918, but his poems leave behind a powerful message: he is telling us not to believe in the glory of a patriotic death, but to lament the millions of young lives lost unnecessarily in war. This message is still as poignant, powerful and tragic today as when his poems were first written almost one hundred years ago.