THE POEMS OF WILFRID OWEN
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" - "It is sweet and right to die for your country". In my opinion, the strongest contender for the greatest war or anti-war poem ever is the powerful "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfrid Owen. I have read it many, many times over the years and it packs a considerable punch every time. If only politicians who decide on starting wars would read this poem aloud to themselves and their advisors, they might think twice about sending men and women, boys and girls into harm's way. The descriptions in the poem bring home the filth and futility of the whole damn business. Owen, dead at 25, wrote about the reality of trench and gas warfare, the death, the wounds, the torture, the blood and guts that he saw with his own eyes. Not for him the sugary sentimentality of heroic poetry in the name of patriotism. "To children ardent for some desperate glory/the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori." Politicians can walk away after a term in office. Not all soldiers have the same luxury.
"The Poems of Wilfrid Owen", collected in this fine Wordsworth Edition at just £3.99, fill about 100 pages. His death at a young age robbed us of a remarkable writer but what he did write should be studied and kept alive forever more.
From "Anthem For Doomed Youth" - "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons."
Doomed youth, indeed!
From "Asleep" - "Under his helmet, up against his pack/after so many days of work and waking/sleep took him by the brow and laid him back./There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping/death took him by the heart."
From "Exposure" - "Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us .../
wearied we keep awake because the night is silent .../low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient .../worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,/but nothing happens."
On and on he writes, telling us the truth of war in stunning detail. Wilfrid Owen is not for the faint-hearted. He wasn't in it for the glory. He wasn't in it for long, but he left a legacy that we should cherish not only as great literature but also as practical advice before declarations of war are even drafted.