Instructor: Ilham Shayegh
War is one the most horrific nightmares that humans experience, it may seem that the definition of war is very specific but I believe that could have many different meanings depending on the person’s relationship to it. For some, it is the sign of bravery and nationalism, for others it is the means to political power and freedom. For Wilfred Owen who was an English poet who served and died during World War 1, war means hell. In his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1920), he pictures that there is no glory nor honor in war, and that war is horrifying. For me, this poem became very personal. I have lived throughout the Syrian war for two years, and I can relate to everything that Owen wrote on an emotional level. I have experienced the nightmares that Owen talks about, I watched innocent people die right in front of my eyes and I could not do anything about it. When I have read the poem for the first time, I felt the same pain that Owen had felt, and I realized that the poem reflected my emotions and personal experiences.
According to “Reader-Response Criticism”, “The text and the reader, play equal parts in the interpretive process.” (Bressler, 65). While I was reading “Dulce et Decorum Est” I was feeling Owen’s sadness and pain as if I was the speaker of his poem. A reader interprets or understands certain works based on their own experiences and thoughts.
Owen starts his poem by describing the soldiers at war, “Bent double, like old beggars on the under sacks/Knock-Kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.” (L. 1). He describes them as old to indicate that they were prematurely aged people that were old before their time, and the soldiers were beggars as well because they were in poverty and destitution, this shows the soldiers’ lack of control over the situation and over their own lives. Old beggars do not need to be soldiers, old beggars, in war, can be citizens too. I witnessed many bombardments in Aleppo, and whenever we heard a loud noise, we used to bent double like the soldiers in the poem. I remember one time I was at home alone watching television and suddenly I heard a loud noise, I immediately covered my ears and bent double because I did not know what to do, all the glasses were broken and I was terrified. Like the soldiers I knew that I did not have control over my life, nor did I have control over the situation and all I could do was to watch the destruction. I was like a hag, and although I was fifteen years old, I felt much older in life experience. I did not expect to be able to handle that much pain because I was begging to live in every moment.
During war, hundreds of soldiers as well as citizens die, Owen witnesses the death of one of his friends and the fact that he cannot save him tortures him and gives him nightmares. “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning,” (L. 14), he compared the dying with Chlorine gas poisoning to drowning under a green ocean. Similarly, I have witnessed parents carrying the dead bodies of their children, and children crying for their dead parents. I have witnessed people dying as if it was a video game. To be murdered is to be drowned, war is something unnatural that suffocates us. Like Owen, I could not save anyone, and that still haunts and tortures me.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning (L. 15).
Owen’s dreams were suffocating him, they were all-consuming and he could not get rid of them. “If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in.” (L. 17-18). It is an emotional moment as “flung” is a harsh term, they were not gently placing a war hero on the wagon, but they were throwing his body to run faster towards the hospital, without decorum, without honor. I have been living in Armenia for two years and I still have nightmares about the war. I woke up one-night screaming and crying, in the dream, I was walking alone down the street and suddenly the terrorists came from nowhere and shot me. I thought I was dying, it felt so real. I woke up shaking, I had so many nightmares like this and only people who have experienced war can have these types of nightmare. I am now used to seeing these nightmares as they deeply affected my thoughts and emotions.
There are people who think that there is courage and glory in war, for instance the “you” of the line 25 (“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest”) can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, Jessie Pope, who was a children’s fiction writer and poet whose patriotic poems glorified war. Owen ends the poem with these lines to Pope that perhaps, if she would have served and lived through the nightmares that Owen has, she would not celebrate war any longer. The Horacian tale “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” (27-28), which means it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country, thus is an empty phrase, an “old lie.” Owen starts and ends his poem with the same phrase to show us the change of perception that a soldier can go through. War is a complete devastation and it is hatred, fear, danger, anxiety and sorrow. I survived many bombings and gunshots while others civilians did not, I have seen buildings go down in seconds, and we spent weeks without electricity and water, I said goodbye to so many close friends as they left Aleppo because it was not safe anymore, where is the sweetness and honor in all this? My little brother still cries at the sound of fireworks because he thinks they are bombs. War is inhuman and if it is not hell, then I do not know what to call it.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012. Print.
Bressler, Charles E. “Reader-Response Criticism” Literary Criticism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 55-74. Print