Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
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.
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.
To “turn” is to “turn away,” to release, to renew, to refuse, the way all acts of choice must refuse. But we first need a thing to turn. We need a continuity, a momentum, a body that “turns,” perhaps, into a new body, a moth or laurel tree, bearing the memory of the old in the mythic body of the whole. The very metaphor of the poetic turn thus asks us to imagine two natures whose friction and dependence give a poem its transformative power. It asks us to honor a poem’s structure and its process. But then, we find the dissonant counterpoint of these elements in every line of a good poem. More specifically, “the turn” suggests the heated moment of the process, the place of greatest liberty and risk, the pivot where the structural elements grow most supple as the poem turns its head to look, to flood the eye with a new direction.
To honor the turn and its critical role in the dynamic architecture of all good poems, it helps to burn away those elements of a poem’s skin, the inventive surfaces of voice that, as readily available, so often attract the lion’s share of attention as if their local pleasures might carry the authority of a poem’s vision. Voice is not vision, though it either serves the visionary or fails its true vocation. To burn away the skin is, of course, an abomination, a murder. What makes a poem a poem is how it resists translation and reduction, how meaning is wedded even to the smallest elements of form. Nevertheless, to see the larger elements of argument and narrative, it is helpful to lose the distractions, to see the pivots in the skeleton as evidence that a poem has one and that, without it, it is a blob of flesh. A poem without a turn of genuine awakening and surprise dissolves into either the too continuous or the not continuous enough. Thus we get the episodic, the descriptive, the listless, the sensational, the sentimental, the self-absorbed, the voice in love with the sound it makes.
Imagine if Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” contented itself with a catalogue of hardships, if it ended after a stanza. The poem would move perhaps but not aspire toward the force of vision, not on the scale of the turn that suggests new wind in the sails of awakening. Granted, the figuration of the opening stanza gives it emotional grit and conceptual depth, coupled with all that spondaic cacophony and orchestrated silence under the pressure of form. The immediate physicality and collective sweep of perspective will be critical to the gathering force of argument. The first turn (“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!”) turns our gaze from the collective to the individual: the moment of crisis and the individual victim who then plunges toward the individual witness clear into his unconscious. The authority of the whole thus comes from both the scale of the tragedy and its eventual focus, the internalized sense that, as the final couplet of the octave splits off, the speaker’s narrative control reaches the flashpoint of nightmare and compulsion.
The next turn, the most major of the poem, thus breaks from narrative into a higher register of voice that raises the stakes and ambition of the poem. So too we move to second person point of view, so that the poem overall takes on a funnel structure that moves toward greater intimacy from men, to man, to I, to the unconscious, to you, that “friend” who gives to the poem the immediacy of the act of telling. Thus the long conditional clauses with their horrors create a space whereby the move to the didactic feels not merely didactic, but dramatic, warmed and authenticated by all that came before. As a result, the poem’s subject is not simply war or propaganda, but one person’s heartbreak and bitter commitment in relation to them as that character unfolds before us. With the expanding pitch of anger and emotional logic, this new imperative music and speculative broadening nevertheless maintains something of the familiar, of that tough and measured discipline of form, itself a breed of decorum. With both heart and spine, the poem refuses the cowardice of euphemism and propaganda, of turning, not toward a larger consciousness, but to a place more complacent, more withdrawn. Thus the poem does what all good poems do. It rebels. It hungers. It expands. It asks the difficult questions. It breaks the mold of its own design in pursuit of the revelatory power that must move to move us, that breaks through, so that we, in turn, might never be the same.
Bruce Bond is the author of eight published books of poetry, most recently The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (Finalist, The Poet’s Prize, LSU, 2008), and his tetralogy of new books entitled Choir of the Wells will be released from Etruscan Press in 2013. His poetry appears often in such journals and anthologies as Best American Poetry, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, The New Republic, The Yale Review, and Poetry, and he has received numerous prizes including fellowships from the NEA, the Texas Institute of the Arts, and the Institute for the Advancement of the Arts. Presently he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American Literary Review.