Two Sonnets for Memorial Day

(To Jessie Pope,[1] etc.)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
Till on the haunting fires 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 in lime.—
Dim, through 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 distant glory
The old lie: DULCE ET DECORUM EST
PRO PATRIA MORI
.[2]

–Wilfred Owen (Oct. 1917).

The poet, Wilfred Owen began work on this poem in October 1917 while on leave in England. This is his best known poem. He never completed it for publication, because a year later he was dead. On November 4, 1918 he was killed on the front in a meaningless battle for the Sambre–Oise Canal seven days before the warring governments finalized the Armistice.

  1. [1]Jesse Pope was an Leicester poet who wrote light verse before the Great War and then during the War published a series of patriotic poems in the Daily Mail urging young men to enlist and celebrating patriotic sacrifice, using verse like the following: Who’s for the Game, the biggest that’s played / The red crashing game of a fight? Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid / And who thinks he’d rather sit tight? . . . / Who knows it won’t be a picnic–not much– / Yet eagerly shoulders a gun? / Who would much rather come back with a crutch / Than lie low and be out of the fun?
  2. [2]A line from the imperial poet Horace’s Odes. In English, Sweet it is and becoming to die patriotically [= for the patria]. In 1913, shortly before the outbreak of the War, the line was carved into a wall at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

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