Dulce et Decorum Est

Here is an exam response to this magnificent poem by Wilfred Owen. It is for part a) only, which is:

In this poem Owen explores ideas about war. Write about the ways in which Owen presents war in this poem. 

This poem is one of the most powerful and well-known poems of the First World War. Written during Owen’s time at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, it is a passionate and bitter reflection on the horrors of trench warfare. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met Sassoon, whose poems also convey a passionate anti-war sentiment. Unlike the poets before them, the poems of Owen, Sassoon and others such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg are written by soldiers with first-hand experience of trench warfare and its horrors. Consequently, they have little time for the romanticised propaganda of their predecessors. War, Owen suggests, is not noble or glorious at all. Quite the opposite: it is a crime against humanity. The poem ends with a chilling indictment to readers to acknowledge this; anyone who suggests that to die for one’s country is ‘noble’ or fitting is nothing short of a liar.

The first stanza sets the scene: soldiers march towards their ‘distant rest’ away from the ‘flares’ of the front line. Owen uses similes to describe them; they are ‘like old beggars’ and ‘[cough] like hags’, suggesting that these men, once young and full of life, now resemble the elderly and decrepit. The imagery is designed to shock; yet it only becomes more disturbing as the poem progresses. For beggars and hags may not be the most attractive of folk, but they are at least human, as is the soldier in the gas attack in the second stanza: ‘like a man in fire or lime’ (my emphasis). In the final stanza, however, the similes no longer describe that which is human. As the gas begins to take effect and we witness the slow and agonising death of the ill-fated soldier, his face is ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’. This is the face of a gargoyle, a demon, a twisted contortion of the human face, no longer recognisable as the soldier that once was. The hags and beggars of the opening lines seem healthy in comparison. The destructive effect of the gas is captured in two final similes: ‘obscene as cancer’ and ‘bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores’. Both serve to emphasise Owen’s message: War is a poison, toxic to those who ingest it. Its effects are those of a terminal disease, causing only suffering and ending only in death. His anger can be heard in the harsh plosives: ‘bitter as the cud‘ and his disgust rings out in the sibilance of ‘obscene as cancer’.

Verbs play a key part in the poem. Owen uses them, firstly, to show the passing of time. In the first stanza, they are construed in the past tense: ‘cursed‘, ‘turned‘, ‘marched‘ and ‘limped‘ depicting the slow and painful process of the soldiers’ journey. During the attack, they shift to the present continuous: ‘fumbling / Fitting‘, ‘yelling‘, ‘stumbling‘ ‘flound’ring‘ and ‘drowning‘. This contributes to the sense of immediacy and action that dominates the second stanza (and is the result of the frequent caesura and fragmented speech there). Secondly, they create an atmosphere of emergency and panic. The verbs appeal to the sense of sound: we hear the ‘yelling’ and then in the third stanza, the ‘choking’. The sounds become less commonplace (the coughing and trudging of the opening stanza) and more peculiar, until the final verb, the ‘gargling’ of the man’s lungs. (The filling of the lungs during a gas attack had the same effect as when a person drowns.) The effect is cumulative; there is a sense of rapid degeneration as the soldier, and we who watch him, descend into hell.

Adjectives and adverbs also deserve our attention. Owen uses these to create the surreal atmosphere of a nightmare. There is a dreamlike quality to the gas shells that fall ‘softly’ as the men march ‘asleep’. This is further emphasised during the attack in the second stanza: the scene is ‘dim’ and ‘ misty’ and everything is bathed in a light that is ‘thick’ and ‘green’. The effect is one of hazy confusion (it is no wonder the helmets, or gas masks, are ‘clumsy’) and this, juxtaposed with the emergency and and panic created by the syntax, has a distorting effect on the poem. It, like that which it describes, feels wrong, perverted, unreal.

This dreamlike atmosphere is significant in two ways. Firstly, it is the repeated dreams (nightmares?) of the attack that haunt Owen in the days (months? years?) to come, and ‘smother’ him with the conviction that war is an abomination. Secondly, it distances us from the horror of the action. Whilst the use of tense creates the sense that the action is unfolding right before our eyes, and is horrific and graphic, it is perhaps too horrific for us to digest. We cannot stomach the reality of such horrors, and it is only fitting that we should in some way fail to comprehend this scene. In this context, the poem’s final message:

…you would not tell

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

is a wake-up call. This is the truth, and it has a clarity that rings clear and loud in contrast to the chaos and confusion of previous stanzas. Owen leaves behind his unreal vision to let his message resound: the propaganda is a lie. War is an abomination, and to die in it is not noble. It is the stuff of nightmares.






Elements of Crime Writing: Reading List

Hi all.

I’m in the process of putting together a reading list for the ‘Elements of Crime Writing’ exam. As with any literary genre, the list of recommended reading could go on and on. We are not suggesting that you read everything on this list. That would be ridiculous. We are, however, advising you to familiarise yourself with at least one text from each section (not including your set text, obviously). Know what it is about. Dip into it. If you particularly like it, read more. Gradually, you should build up an increasingly detailed and comprehensive understanding of the different types of crime writing that make up this very varied and wide-ranging genre.

Happy half term reading!

Classical Literature

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Old English and Medieval Quest Narratives


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Namely, those of the Pardoner, Miller, Reeve and Wife of Bath)

Early Crime Narratives

The Newgate Calendar

Renaissance Tragedy

Shakespeare, Othello, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet


Milton, Paradise Lost

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner*

George Crabbe, Peter Grimes

Robert Browning, My Last Duchess, The Laboratory, Porphyria’s Lover

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol


Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders

William Godwin, Caleb Williams

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Romance of the Forest

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Emile Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Charles Reade, It is Never too Late to Mend

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, The Moonstone

Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes series

G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown series

Modern Drama

August Strindberg, Miss Julie

Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House

George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, Major Barbara

J B Priestley, An Inspector Calls

Sean O’Casey, Juno and the Paycock, The Shadow of a Gunman

Brian Friel, Translations

The 20th Century and Beyond

Ian McEwan, The Innocent, Saturday, Amsterdam, Atonement*

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor

Paul Auster, City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room

Brian Moore, Lies of Silence

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock*

Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?

* set text for 2017 examination

One of my personal faves.

Year 11 Half-term Homework

This half term it’s all about revising for English Literature.

To do:

  1. Practice exam essay on Jane Eyre. (Use this website: http://genius.com/Charlotte-bronte-jane-eyre-chap-1-annotated to help you revise.)
  2. Practice exam essay on Blood Brothers.
  3. Practice exam essay on the Eduqas Poetry Anthology.
  4. Practice exam essay on Romeo and Juliet: Write about the theme of love vs. hate in the play. Which do you consider to be the most powerful force?

Love/Hate in Romeo and Juliet

Write about how Shakespeare presents the theme of love and hate in Romeo and Juliet.

Introduction: Ask key questions that the essay will answer, for example, how does love affect the characters in the play? How does hate affect their behavior? What are the similarities between love and hate? What does the language suggest about love and hate?

Key points to include:

  • Love seems to make characters behave irrationally. (Romeo and Juliet in Act 2 scene 2, Friar Lawrence in Act 3 and the Nurse in Act 3).
  • There are different types of love (romantic, maternal, spiritual) which all appear impetuous.
  • Hate is powerful and triumphs over love at various points. (Act 3 scenes 1 and 5).
  • Shakespeare uses oxymorons and metaphors to suggest that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

Conclusion: Love and hate are not opposites! They are closely related and equally powerful.