Wilfred Owen and “The Pity of War”

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,”

(It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country)

                                                      —   Horace, 23BC

The line above is taken from a poem by the Ancient Roman poet Horace in which he urges his fellow citizens to take up heroic arms against the enemies of Rome. Much of the poetry of this time was devoted to instilling virtue in the citizenry, particularly nationalistic and military virtue, and it was a commonly maintained belief that death on the battlefield was the highest honor a young man could achieve. Titus in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, though sorrowful, was proud of each of his 21 sons who were killed in battle against the invading Goths. This militaristic and nationalistic virtue extolled by the Romans was adopted from the preceding culture of Ancient Greece. As recorded by the Roman historian Plutarch, women of Ancient Sparta were to known to remark to their sons and husbands while handing them their shields, “Either this or upon this”—which was to say, either return bearing your shield in victory, or laying dead upon it (to lose return without one’s shield indicated that one fled battle in cowardness and this was considered the worst crime a Spartan could commit). 

Throughout the middle ages, this warrior ethic was retained in the form of the chivalric code (though most of the poetry during this period was more devoted to religion than nationhood.) During the Renaissance, however, military fervor was reinvigorated, perhaps most notably by Shakespeare in Henry V which has many patriotic and militaristic speeches. 

Wilfred Owen and "The Pity of War"

Image Source: The Imaginative Conservative

The connection between poetry and patriotism carried throughout the centuries up to the First World War. In the early stages of the conflict, English poets such as Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke and Jessie Pope espoused patriotic and motivational poetry, encouraging young men to sign up and join the “great cause.” Even the most famous Canadian contribution to war poetry, “Flander’s Fields” (1915) by John McCrae, is a romanticism of death on the battlefield and an encouragement to those that follow to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (1914) is another testament to the patriotic fever with which poets were writing at the time:

If I should die, think only this of me:

   That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.  There shall be

   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

     Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

     In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

As illustrated in The Guns of August (1962), Barbara Tuschman’s brilliant account of the early stages of WW1, each nation entering the war was optimistic that they would achieve a swift victory and experts on all sides maintained that their soldiers would be “home before the leaves fall.” But as months passed, then years, soldiers became disillusioned by the horrors and banality of trench warfare, with many returning home with what was termed “shell shock.” By 1917, among the soldiers of all nations, enthusiasm for the war began to dwindle, most notably in Russia where disdain for Russia‘s involvement in the war was a primary catalyst for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In Europe, antiwar sentiments were beginning to fester, expressed most vividly through the newly emerging form of realist poetry which, unlike the romantic and patriotic poems of Brooke and Kipling, sought to express dissent and dissatisfaction with the war effort rather than glorify it. 

Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were early leaders in this nascent genre. Sassoon’s poems, in particular, were often scathing and satirical while also representing an honest and unfiltered portrayal of the realities soldiers faced in trench warfare. “Suicide in the Trenches” is a poignant example of the contrast between the style of Sassoon and early Romantics like Brooke and Kipling:

I knew a simple soldier boy 

Who grinned at life in empty joy, 

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, 

And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum, 

With crumps and lice and lack of rum, 

He put a bullet through his brain. 

No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye 

Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 

The hell where youth and laughter go.

In July of 1917, Sassoon made his opposition to the war formal, publishing a letter to his superiors titled, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.” In the letter, he states his “willful defiance” of military authority as he believed the war was being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Due to his notable bravery on the battlefield and popularity among the soldiers, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockheart’s War Hospital instead of being court-martialed (which would have been the punishment of any other soldier) ostensibly to be treated for neurasthenia or “shell shock.”

Seigfried Sassoon: Blue Plaques Guide

It was at Craiglockheart that Sassoon met an ambitious young poet who was also being treated for shell shock named Wilfred Owen. By the time they met, Sassoon had already gained notoriety as a subversive poet following the publication of his first book of poems, The Old Huntsman (1917). Owen, still suffering the effects of shell shock from his experience at the front, was speaking with a stutter and it took him nearly two weeks to introduce himself to Sassoon as a fellow poet. Owen at this time had produced only a few mediocre poems but Sassoon nevertheless saw potential in the small, shy Owen whom also shared the conviction that the war ought to be ended. During his time at Craiglockheart, Owen’s poetry went through a significant transformation. Though Sassoon was reluctant to take credit, claiming that he merely “stimulated [Owen] towards writing with compassionate and challenging realism[1],” undoubtedly his emphasis on unfiltered, forceful realism had a revolutionizing impact on Owen’s poetic style.

Wilfred Owen: Daily Mail

Throughout the next year at Craiglockheart, he composed several poems with the intention of compiling them into a book which he hoped to publish, for which an unfinished preface was found among his notes. It begins:

This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak

of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,

dominion or power, except War.

Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.

The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity . . .


Among Owen’s poems penned during this period was “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” an obvious reference to the line from Horace’s Ode III. In the poem, Owen rejects the notion of the “sweet and fitting” death on the battlefield declaring it “the old lie.” Instead, Owen recalls a gas attack his company suffered while retreating from a post they had been holding in no man’s land in which one of the soldiers suffocates violently from the fumes. The poem was originally dedicated to the English poet, Jessie Pope, as a rebuke to her fervent propaganda poetry which often glorified and romanticized the war. The poem even made specific reference to her by name; however, in later editions, her name was edited out and replaced with “my friend” as seen in the last stanza.

Stormtroopers by Otto Dix

Owen never saw the publication of the poem as he was tragically killed while attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal in France exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice. Upon hearing of his death, Sassoon, though nearly paralyzed by grief, was steadfast in his determination to champion Owen’s work. In 1920, with the war still fresh in the minds of the public, Poems, a collection of Owen’s poetry which included Dulce Et Decorum Est, was published largely thanks to the insistence of Sassoon. Since then, Dulce Et Decorum Est has stood as one of the most recognized poems of the First World War and arguably one of the greatest antiwar poems ever penned: 

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 tired outstripped five-nines dropping 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.


[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/wilfred-owen