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November 2003 • Vol 3, No. 10 •

War, and the Pity of War

1918: Only a week before the Armistice, Wilfred Owen (“Anthem for Doomed Youth”) was killed in France at age 25. He has defined his subject as “War, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Siegfried Sassoon, poet-friend with whom he had a brief and intense affair, edited his poems following his death.

Yeats excluded Owens’ “Anthem” from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse as “unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper.” Now Owen is considered the greatest of World War I poets.

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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.*

—Wilfred Owen, 1918

* It is sweet and meet (fitting) to die for one’s country.”





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