Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 6:00 am

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” doesn’t mean quite what you think (or what *I* thought)

Filed under: Salute!,Say a prayer — Lex @ 6:00 am

Army officer Robert Bateman, a historian, dove a little deeper last year to show that the punch line of Owen’s classic poem was based in part on a historical misunderstanding:

Between the time when he was blown into the sky by mortars at the age of 22 and when he was shot dead by machine gun fire at 25, he wrote some poetry, the finest bit of which is partially stolen from the Roman orator Horace. It was repurposed by Owen. Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori. Owen had been taught that Patria meant “your country.” He called this sentiment, “the old lie.” You should read this poem, because it is beautiful, before you read my critique.

..But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring 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.
…the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…

Owen shows us, up close, the inhumanity of war. Then in the final lines he mocks the notion that it is sweet or right to die for one’s country. To do this, he repurposes a bit of Latin from the Roman orator Horace:

…The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

See, early in the war, the British government had used Horace to encourage enlistment by appealing to the population’s Edwardian sense of duty. In 1917, Owen would have understood, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” as something like, “It is beautiful and right that one should die for one’s country.” Nationalism and propaganda colored Owen’s interpretation of Horace, and I appreciate his resentment. But I think Horace’s words can be understood differently — not as an old lie, but as a shared truth.

Pardon, for a moment, my amateur translation of the Latin. It is tinged and informed by history. Dulce roughly means, “correct and/or peaceful/beautiful/sweet.” The word “et” is the same now as it was then, “and.”

The next word, “Decorum” carries some freight. “Right” and “Proper” is often how it is translated now, but in context it means, I think, “according with the values of your society.”

“Est” is merely “is.”

“Pro Patria Mori” is a little complex. Pro means “for,” and “Patria” is, essentially, your country. Okay, no. That is not exactly right. That is just what Owens was brought up to think that it meant. In reality it sort of means, “The folks what brung you up.” Or maybe, “Your peeps.”

See, the problem is that the word “patria,” as it is often translated, is that the idea of a “country,” or a “nation” is a more modern invention than Horace, or any Roman, would have recognized. They did not think in terms of “countries,” and so Latin did not have words that talked about what we would recognize as countries. I think Horace would approve of my deconstruction. (No, I am not a Derridean.)

So the sum can be seen, Owen’s interpretation of, Dulce et Decorum est,” labeled by a man who saw war and called this “the old lie,” came out this way: “It is beautiful and right that one should die for one’s country.” But Wilfred was wrong. That is not his fault. He was a poet, not a historian.

Dulce et Décorum Est, Pro Patria Mori, should be translated this way: “Fighting and possibly Dying for your friends and family to protect and defend them, as you have been taught, is the right thing to do.” Nationalism and Propaganda colored Owens’ interpretation, and I understand his resentment. Horace had been used by the British government early in the War to encourage enlistment out of a sense of Edwardian duty. That is not Owens’ fault, he was reacting to his own nation — not the actual history.

But even knowing this, the dead march through my dreams. They are my friends, my soldiers, my cadets-turned-officers, my enemies, dead in their many ways, but dead all the same. For the same reason, friend and foe, they are dead. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

And so, today, I ask you to remember them. All of them, because in the end, they died believing.

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