“It is sweet and honorable…”
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, but I wanted to share one of my favorite poems with you all. This one comes from Wilfred Owen and it’s generally considered “the” defining poem of the First World War or “The War to End All Wars” or “The Great War.” Whatever silly moniker you want to use.
The poem’s title translates to Latin from above, but that’s not the full phrase. He finishes it at the end of the poem with, “pro patria mori,” so the fully saying roughly translates to, “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.”
Here’s the poem in full:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest 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
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes 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, 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
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Note: Owen began the poem in October 1917 and made his final revisions around March 1918 while on leave to recover from shell-shock. Less than six months after his final revisions, he was dead. He returned to the front in France, and was killed in battle one week before the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
Over 100 years later, do you look at such a phrase, “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland,” and think it quaint? I don’t. Without getting overly political here, there are still millions of people all around the globe, including here in the United States that think it is “sweet and honorable” to die for the fatherland. Obviously, many people sign up for the military for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with such an idea, but some certainly do.