Dulce et Decorum Est - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Dulce et Decorum Est


WWI image of gas casualtiesDulce et Decorum Est is rich in similes whose function is to illustrate as graphically as possible the gory details of the war and in particular a gas attack.

like old beggars’ l.1. The soldiers are deprived of dignity and health like the elderly and dispossessed who are reduced to begging for a living.

coughing like hags’ l.2. Owen compares the men to old, ugly women. They have lost their youth and with it their potency and masculinity. 

like a man in fire or lime’ l.12 Lime is a strong alkali which burns the skin as does flame; Owen is witnessing the agony of a man on fire.

As under a green sea’ l.14. This evokes the reality of drowning. The ‘dim’ image seen through ‘thick green light’ may be the effect of the gas but may also refer to the fact that Owen is seeing the man through the eye-piece of his own gas mask. 

like a devil’s sick of sin’ l.20.The implications for pain and loathing here are dark. The man’s face is compared to that of a devil, who is itself horrified by - and surfeited with - evil.

Obscene as cancer’ l.23. Owen presents us with a short brutal comparison. Like cancer the killer, the man’s blood is an obscenity; something which should not to be seen. It is as offensive to the sight as is death by drowning in poison gas.

bitter as the cud / Of vile incurable sores...’ l. 24. Owen uses a farming image (‘cud’ is the bitter tasting, regurgitated, half-digested pasture chewed by cattle) that equates humans with animals, as well as conveying the acidic burning effect of the man’s blood which has been degraded by the gas inhalation. 


This is such a literal poem that Owen hardly uses metaphor or personification. The use of phrases such as ‘drunk with fatigue’ and ‘deaf even to the hoots’ could be interpreted as metaphorical ways of showing the men’s physical state. However it could be argued that their tiredness is such that it has the same impact on the brain as drunkenness and that to all intents and purposes the men are deaf to the shells since all their senses are numbed. Similarly, ‘blood-shod’ l.6 conveys how blood-covered feet might, at a distance, look as if they were protected by shoe leather, but in fact the blood really is the only ‘covering’ the feet have.

Dreams don’t literally suffocate a person, but the idea of being ‘smother[ed]’ l.17 is strongly associated with nightmares and the physical symptoms of panic on waking, which include gasping for breath.


Owen arrests our attention with certain phrases which read like contradictions.

  • In l.9, the phrase ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ encapsulates the contrast of ecstasy suggesting being taken onto a higher plane, whilst fumbling is characteristic of clumsy humanity
  • Both ‘lungs’ and ‘tongues’ should be wholesome and healthy aspects of human survival, yet in l.22 and 24 they are ‘froth-corrupted’ or degraded by ‘vile .. sores’
  • The ‘desperate glory’ of l. 26 is a less complex oxymoron. The youths long for glory, perhaps for the adulation of fame, yet it may only be won when they can no longer appreciate it – and a death such as witnessed in this poem is hardly glorious. 

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Dulce et Decorum Est

  • Owen compares the men to beggars and hags and perhaps animals. How do these images contribute to a sense of the pity of war?
  • Compare the imagery Owen uses in Dulce et Decorum Est with the imagery and symbolism inAnthem for Doomed Youth
    • How far do you agree that this makes them very different sorts of poems?
  • Compare the imagery and symbolism Owen uses in Dulce et Decorum Est with the imagery and symbolism of Disabled
    • How far do you agree that this makes them very similar sorts of poems?

Themes in Dulce et Decorum Est

Death is the overriding theme in Dulce et Decorum Est, although never actually mentioned except in the Latin word ‘mori’, which means ‘to die’. The soldier who is gassed is described as drowning, and the physical details and disfigurement of this process made overt. Part of Owen’s horror is that he is never able to see the gassed soldier as anything other than in the writhing agony of fighting for his life. It is as if he is trapped in an eternal hell of pain; he is not even granted the release of death, just as Owen finds no release in sleep.

Owen highlights the contrast between the Home front and the Western front and the wrongheaded thinking of so many back home. His anger at their lack of awareness of the outcomes of the fighting is such that some critics have said that it detracts from the poem. Owen depicts the evil and the obscenity of war at a level unequalled in any other poem.

Hauntings, dreams and nightmares are all aspects of the imaginative life. Owen explores the power of dreams in a number of his poems, as here in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Investigating Themes in Dulce et Decorum Est

  • The last word of the poem is ‘mori’, meaning ‘to die’. It is in Latin and the only direct mention of death. Yet this poem describes one of the most terrible experiences of war. What do you think is added to the poem by this lack of direct reference to death?
  • Owen gives a very detailed picture of suffering. How do you respond to the criticism that it is too explicit?
  • How far do you agree that this is Owen’s angriest poem?
    • Does Owen’s anger detract in any way from the impact of the poem?
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