The Lost Generation : World War I Poetry : Wilfred Owen

Title page of Wilfred Owen's Poems.


Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” stands as the most widely anthologized example of a poem by a WWI soldier who positions his passion and vision in direct opposition to the euphemistic rhetoric about war so prevalent in patriotic verse and political discourse. That said, part of its persuasive strategy is that of rooting its vision in the immediacy of the personal, such that whatever didactic energy of the closure grows out of a dramatic context and the sense of personal authority gathered in the process. Much of the success of this structure relies upon a series of “turns,” or “voltas,” that delineate the poem’s development. 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 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. With the expanding pitch of anger and emotional logic, this new imperative music and speculative broadening nevertheless maintain something of the familiar, of that tough and measured discipline of form, itself a breed of decorum. 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 and formal control reaches the flashpoint of nightmare and compulsion.

Find Poems by Wilfred Owen in the UNT Library Catalog.