Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #33

Of all the great and haunting poetry ever written about war, this classic from the young British soldier Wilfred Owen has got to be considered among the most powerful single poems ever penned. Justly famous, it is a harrowing first-hand description of trench warfare during World War I, which he described as "seventh hell" in a letter to his mother. I first came across it while reading Philip Caputo's disturbing memoir about Vietnam, A Rumor of War.

The poem is bracing and chilling enough in and of itself, but even moreso when you consider the fact that less than a year after writing it, Owen was shot and killed (on Nov. 4, 1918) in the French village of Ors during what turned out to be the FINAL WEEK of WWI... his parents received notification of his death just as the bells of armistice were ringing out in their hometown on November 11, 1918.

Posting it as the POTW this week is not a political statement in any way, although I as much as anybody would like to see our soldiers come home as soon as possible (and see no more killed). Rather, it is a tribute to the courage and bravery of the men and women serving our country overseas... and a sober reminder of the horrible price that has been paid, and is continuing to be paid, for our freedom. We must continually ask ourselves whether such a steep price is worth it.

[FYI: The line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori comes from one of the odes of Horace, and is translated as "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."]


Dulce et Decorum Est

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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.

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