In class today we focused on Owen, specifically his use of the religious in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” and some of the formal elements in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” One thing that I wish we touched more on was Owen’s portrayal not only of war, but nationalism/the nation as an idea or concept.
I bring up this topic because in the famous final lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen does not make a statement about dying for your country in WWI specifically. Rather, his statement is more general, saying (translated) “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” If he wanted to, he could have expressed his frustration about WWI itself and the reasons why he saw this particular war as egregious (as he did in the “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”). However, by choosing not to do so, we can assume that Owen thinks it is never “sweet and honorable to die for one’s country,” no matter the circumstance. This, of course, goes against the prevailing narrative that dying in service of one’s country is the most honorable thing one can do (e.g. “The Charge of the Light Brigade”). If we assume that this is what Owen intended (and not that he used the lines just so that he could directly invoke Horace), the most obvious question is – why? If it was not because WWI was uniquely horrific, why does Owen have such a distaste for ever dying for one’s country? Or, as is certainly possible, am I reading too much into this? Is Owen’s reasoning tied only to the nature of WWI itself? Does he spend the majority of the poem describing, in nauseatingly vivid detail, the experience of a WWI soldier in the trenches because his opinion is only meant to be read as a response to WWI? Or, does he do so because he believes it to be the most way to get his message across?
I think a potential answer to these questions can be found in an Owen poem that we did not talk about in class today, “Smile, Smile, Smile.” To commit the heresy of paraphrase, the poem is about a group of soldiers reading an issue of an English newspaper and lamenting about all of the propaganda that it is spreading. One such piece of propaganda comes at the end of the quoted article, saying “‘The greatest glory will be theirs who fought, / Who kept this nation in integrity.'” (16-17). Immediately following this we read,
“Nation? – The half-limbed readers did not chafe / But smiled at one another curiously / Like secret men who know their secret safe. / (This is the thing they know and never speak, / That England one by one had fled to France, Not many elsewhere now, save under France.)” (18-23).
Here, it seems to me that Owen is suggesting that they (the soldiers) are England itself and that those at home have no right to speak of the “nation” of England because they are no longer a part of it. In some ways this seems compatible with sentiments such as Rupert Brooke’s “If I should die, think only this of me: That there is some corner of a foreign field / that is for ever England” (From “The Soldier,” 1-3). Yet, Owen’s sentiment is also vastly different. For Owen, the soldiers are not an extension of England, or fighting for England, they are England. Or, perhaps, there is no longer any England at all. Maybe England can only exist under the confines of France, because that is where the war is. To be honest, I’m not sure. The more I think about these lines the more interpretations I come up with. All of this is to say that Owen’s idea of the nation, especially when it is at war, is far from the convention at the time. And I think this view of the nation (whatever it is) can be used in order to read the ending of “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Perhaps Owen is so against dying for one’s country because his view of what a nation actually is has tainted his view of patriotism/nationalism. Does any of this make sense? What other readings can you come up with for these poems and their relation (or lack thereof) to each other? Did I miss Owen talking about nation in a different poem? Are there any other Owen poems that can be used in order to explain his supposed general distaste for dying for one’s country? Have his experiences in WWI changed his opinion on what it means to be a nation? Have I been thinking too much about the artificiality of the nation because of my postcolonial literature class? Hopefully some answers come as we stumble across this semester’s bleak ending.
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