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Dulce et Decorum Est

Best known poem of the First World War
(with notes)

Link to videos of Dulce et Decorum Est poem


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) 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(4) 
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) 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,(11) 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(12) 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13) 
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)

Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917  and March, 1918

Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est

1.  DULCE ET DECORUM EST - the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

2.  Flares - rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.) 

3.  Distant rest - a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer 

4.  Hoots - the noise made by the shells rushing through the air 

5.  Outstripped - outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle  

 6.  Five-Nines - 5.9 calibre explosive shells 

7.  Gas! -  poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned

8.  Helmets -  the early name for gas masks 

9.  Lime - a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue 

10.  Panes - the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks 

11.  Guttering - Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling 

12.  Cud - normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier's mouth 

13.  High zest - idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea 

14.  ardent - keen 

15.  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - see note 1 above.

These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War, where other war poems that need special explanations are similarly annotated. The ideal book for students getting to grips with the poetry of the First World War.

The pronunciation of Dulce is DULKAY. The letter C in Latin was pronounced like the C in "car". The word is often given an Italian pronunciation pronouncing the C like the C in cello, but this is wrong. Try checking this out in a Latin dictionary!  -  David Roberts.

To see the source of Wilfred Owen's ideas about muddy conditions see his letter in Wilfred Owen's First Encounter with the Reality of War. (Click to see.)

Videos of readings of Dulce et Decorum Est  -  Click to see.

LINK TO How to choose Wilfred Owen books: books of poems by Wilfred Owen, books of his letters, biographies of Wilfred Owen, critical studies.

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Dulce et decorum est

Out in the Dark
and Minds at War

This poem appears in both Out in the Dark and Minds at War, but the notes are found only in Out in the Dark. Minds at War has much more background information, for example, more poets' letters, biographical and historical information, etc than Out in the Dark. Out in the Dark has 192 pages. Minds at War has 410 pages.

To understand more about Wilfred Owen's war experience, his breakdown, how his poetry developed rapidly after meeting another British war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, it may be worth reading one of these two books. Both contain many more poems by Wilfred Owen and  extracts from his letters.

Both books provide a substantial selection of the greatest war poetry of the First World War and fascinating insights into the experience of one of the most terrible wars in the history of mankind.

Both books are edited by David Roberts, the editor of this website, and have been in print for more than ten years.

Click in the left column to access more information about these books and to read comments and reviews.


A new reading by David Roberts bringing out the meaning of this powerful poem


You can view this video on YouTube by going to the YouTube search box and entering "Dulce David Roberts".  You can then leave comments there or express "like" (or otherwise).

A reading of the poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, with archive film footage

Free use of this page for students' individual personal use
Notes on Dulce et decorum est copyright © David Roberts and Saxon Books 1998. Free use by students for personal use only. If reproduced by teachers for non-commercial use with their own students the copyright should be covered under a general license for photocopying - in which case, if the institution is asked to record copyright ownership it should be attributed to Saxon Books/David Roberts/Out in the Dark.

Re-sale or wide distribution (more than a class set)
Anyone wishing to use the poem with these notes in a publication for resale or for wide use in an educational or similar institution (beyond an individual teacher's use with his or her own class(es)) should contact the author. See the Contact page of this website.

Copyright 1998 Saxon Books - David Roberts

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Brief Life of Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen's first encounter with the reality of war
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen  

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