First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Background to 'Dulce et Decorum Est'

'Dulce et Decorum Est' is perhaps one of Wilfred Owen's most famous poems, ranking alongside his often anthologised 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'. The title of the poem comes from the latin poet Horace's statement 'Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori' (Horace, Odes, iii ii 13) meaning 'It is sweet and proper to die for one's country'.

The poem survives in four original manuscripts (noted in this tutorial as A, B, C, and D) two of which rest in the British Library, and two in the English Faculty Library at the University of Oxford. It appears that the first draft of the poem appeared in early October 1917 whilst Owen was receiving treatment at Craiglockhart War Hospital (thus after his first meeting with Siegfried Sassoon in August of the same year). Thereafter the subsequent revisions of the poem are uncertain but Stallworthy argues that it 'was revised, probably at Scarborough but possibly at Ripon, between January and March 1918' (Stallworthy, I, 1983, p. 140).

The central part of the poem describes the death of an anonymous soldier due to poison gas. It vividly describes the suffering of the man, ending with a bitter attack on those who see glory in the death of others. The 'friend' of line 25 probably refers to Jessie Pope, who had published numerous 'jingoistic' poems in such newspapers as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express urging young men to enlist.

The subject matter of the poem possibly stems from an incident described by Owen in a letter to his mother (19th January, 1917, see Collected Letters, pp. 428–9) in which he describes being overtaken by tear-gas. However, almost certainly he would have seen men injured or dying from the more destructive mustard or phosgene gases. He refers to the poem in a later letter (?16th October, 1917, see CL pp. 499–500), again to his mother, in which he states 'here is a gas poem, done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final). The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and decorous to die for one's country. Sweet! And decorous!'.

NB: Ironically 'pro patria mori' is also one of the mottos on the Menin Gate at Ypres.

Dr. Stuart Lee, 1997