Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “Sweet and fitting it is, to die for one’s country.” A line from the Roman poet, Horace, today the phrase would most likely be recognized – when it’s recognized at all – as the title of a famous poem by Wilfred Owen, one of the great “war poets” of World War I.
The poem describes the convulsive death of a soldier who failed to put on his mask in time before a gas attack: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight,/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning,” If you could continue to see him too, Owen says, “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,” then:
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.
When this poem is taught today, it’s as a complete and definitive rejection of war. But things are not quite so simple. Owen himself was a decorated hero, known for bold action in battle. His citation for the Military Cross states, “He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy.”
At one point during the war, he was sent back to an Edinburgh hospital to recover from “neurasthenia” (shell shock). He was rehabilitated enough to be fit, in his doctors’ judgment, for light service back home. But Owen insisted on returning to the front lines, where he was killed in battle on November 8, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice. In notes and letters, he decried the “Prussian” military-industrial war machine and suggested that the war was necessary to defend the gentle and predominantly pastoral life still preserved in England.
As for the poem, one can interpret its literal meaning as a plea for truthfulness about what soldiers actually suffer and sacrifice – an accounting of the cost – and the duty of remembering. Indeed, in his own outline for a planned collection of his war poems, Owen grouped Dulce et Decorum Est along with other poems that had the “motive” of “Indifference at Home.” But the poem is also, obviously, a commentary on the vocation of the poet, to report the truth, rather than to ignore or gloss it over in the service of some superficial standard of pleasantness or niceness.
Perhaps you also remember that C.S. Lewis in his first lecture in The Abolition of Man uses the maxim dulce et decorum as the prime example of what he wants to argue for. Lewis’s argument, in a nutshell, is that it is the role of literature to educate the emotions so that we are properly affected by the world: if we are viewing a great waterfall, for instance, we should be educated so as to be affected by its sublimity, and disposed, therefore, to call it “sublime” rather than merely “pretty.”
To be so educated is to have acquired a heart, a “chest,” so that we are no longer “men without chests,” that is, men who use their intellects solely to find increasingly clever ways to satisfy their animal desires. An education of the heart, through literature properly taught, should open us up to embrace the natural law and to embrace “from within” what it means to be human. But “men without chests” live by irrational instinct rather than natural law, and they view emotions simply as material for manipulation and propaganda.
Men with chests believe that dulce et decorum is true, and they will urge others as well to die for their country, along with them, when that is necessary. Men without chests think there is nothing true about dulce et decorum, but they will appeal to it, as a matter of propaganda, when they wish to stir up others to give up their lives for them.
Lewis gave the lectures that compose Abolition of Man in 1943, in the midst of Britain’s conflict with Nazism. I used to think that he took dulce et decorum as his prime example, because he wanted his audience to reject any lingering sympathy with the pacifist movement of the interwar years and, in particular, with what I took to be the cynical outlook of Wilfred Owen. At the time, such cynicism would have been not simply false but also highly dangerous.
But then I learned more about Owen and his poems. They were not interpreted as “anti-war,” without complexity, until they became famous in the 1960s. Lewis would not have blundered by interpreting Owen as our American classrooms do. Owen himself, I suspect, regarded dulce et decorum as ultimately true, not as “children” understand it, but on grounds similar to Lewis. After all, the action or process of death in battle has never been “sweet,” that is, pleasant to see and to experience, as a matter of what we feel, as a matter of sentimentalism. (For Horace, death in battle meant butchery by sharp swords.) Yet as a matter of what we do, of how we have acted, of what we can be credited with or judged for – then to stand firm in that way is, upon reflection, sweet and noble. It is that appropriate emotion in response to a true judgment that Lewis is concerned with.
I see Owen in his poetry as following a trajectory that coincides with Flannery O’Connor’s in her stories. Perhaps Siegfried Sassoon is a witness to this. The other great “war poet” of WWI, and Owen’s inspiration and dear friend, after some troubled years Sassoon converted to the Catholic faith. He sought instruction first from Msgr. Ronald Knox, who was dying; and he was buried close to Knox at St Andrew’s Church, Mells. The result of all these influences on Sassoon’s conversion and death is movingly preserved in oral testimony by Hilaire Belloc’s grandson, Dom Philip Jebb: “He brought heaven into the room with him.”
Image: La Mitrailleuse by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1915 [The TATE, London]. The French title means “The Machine Gun.”