Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

by Owen

Not all echoes and influences of the poetry of the classical world on modern culture are comfortable ones. In line with the desire of the Emperor Augustus to promote old-fashioned Roman virtues, Horace’s Ode 3.2 praises mental and physical toughness, readiness to bear hardship and other ancestral, soldierly qualities as models for the youth of his day: you can hear the poem in Latin and follow in English here. The Ode contains one of Horace’s most-remembered quotes: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.

The First-World-War poet Wilfred Owen borrowed it for a poem conveying quite a different view on dying for one’s country.

Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, just one week before the end of the war. His quotation from Horace shows that awareness of the classical poetic heritage was not confined to the rich and privileged: though well-educated, Owen came from a modest background, did not go to a public school and could not afford to go to London University, for which he passed the entrance exams.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our 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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.

More Poems by Owen

More poems by this author will be added shortly.