Wilfred Owen’s Use Of Imagery In Dulce Et Decorum Est

“Saving Private Ryan”, a 1998 film directed by Steven Spielberg, received critical acclaim for its realistic, graphic and brutal depiction of the horrific experiences encountered by members of the armed services during the “D-Day” invasion in World War II. Approximately seventy-five years earlier, Wilfred Owen wrote the poem Dulce et Decorum Est using vivid imagery depicting bodily harm that is similarly impactful on its reader and their five senses. While Spielberg had all of the technological advances of modern-day movie making, Owen uses language to create auditory and visual imagery that describes the horrors of war and the struggles endured by soldiers in World War I. Through the use of this imagery, Owen implores the reader not to succumb to or perpetuate the lie of the glorification of war.

Auditory imagery is used to devastating effect by Owen in describing the horrors of trench warfare. Owen first uses auditory imagery to describe how mundane trench warfare was, setting in place a gradual build of emotional intensity. The sounds of an incoming enemy artillery attack are somewhat relatively uneventful and he briefly describes them as the hoots of the “tired, outstripped Five-Nines”. This use of auditory imagery aims to dull the reader’s senses, as Owen’s tone comes off as bored, tired, and nonchalant. However, as the poem continues, the intensity builds and Owen progresses to more profound auditory imagery. Describing an unlucky soldier who was unable to put on his gas mask in time he recounts the sounds of the soldier “yelling out and stumbling” as the trench begins to flood with the sickly mustard gas, and the soldiers’ own lungs dissolve from within. In this use of auditory imagery, Owen completely abandons his nonchalant tone in favor of a more nightmarish one, as he describes a man slowly dying due to his unpreparedness, and begins to show the reader the horrors of trench warfare. Near the end of the poem, Owen's use of auditory imagery reaches its peak, as he speaks directly to the reader of the slow death of his comrade during the aftermath of a gas attack. “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs'. This man’s death is described with such vivid auditory imagery, the reader can almost hear the sounds of death on the battlefield. They are not lyrical or beautiful, rather they are ugly, sickening, and real.

Owen combines this powerful auditory imagery with graphic and detailed visual imagery to paint for his reader the true horrors of war. Owen begins his poem by discussing a dreary day in the trenches as his men began to “trudge” “towards our distant rest”. Owen’s tone seems bored, uninterested and bleak, yet there is still some hope because his unit is marching towards a distant place where they can rest. This weariness is disrupted as the Germans begin to fire gas canisters into the trench. The tone then quickly turns to panic as Owen and his men begin an “ecstasy of fumbling” and “Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time”. There is chaos and confusion that seems to right itself through the use of the phrase “just in time.” It lulls the reader into a false sense of security before the action moves from bad to worse. Owen looks around to make sure his fellow soldiers are not injured but realizes one of his men failed to put on his gas mask. Owen spares no detail in describing his fate. With his gas mask attached, he saw through the “misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning”. The tone is one of horror as he recalls his comrade dying in front of him, being helpless to do anything about it. Owen’s use of strong visual imagery finally reaches its peak when he describes his comrades' condition after the gas attack, as his white 'eyes writhing in his own face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin'. Owen's goal in this quote is to shock and horrify the reader about the almost unimaginable ugliness of the battlefield. Similar to the crescendo Owen achieves in his use of auditory imagery, his visual imagery increases in intensity from boredom, to horror, and ultimately to immeasurable disgust. Owen uses visual imagery to disavow the notion that war is glorious by showing the terrible conditions that soldiers experience and the gruesome death that follows in war's wake. The title of Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est is a mocking reference to a quote from Horace, “Dulce et decorum est / pro matria mori.” The quote is translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen demonstrates through the use of both visual and auditory imagery the farcical nature of this quote and seeks to warn others not to fall prey to the false promise of glory in war.

01 February 2021
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