Poems for long distant loves in lockdown



Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock

Kate North, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Many people are not lucky enough to be with their loved ones this valentine’s day. If that is the case, or if you simply want suitable words to mark the day, then there are plenty of long-distance love poems that you can reach for, to share or to read for comfort.

Some of them can be found in unexpected places, such as Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, a book found in the Old Testament. But if you want an account of longing at a distance, a celebration of sexual intimacy, praise for lust and passion, then this is where you’ll find it: “How much better is thy love than wine!” declares Solomon, “By night on my bed I sought him…” speaks his lover. The lovers were not married and lived separately, and were perhaps in the early days of their courtship. The verse describes their visits to each other in erotic detail, and their yearning for each other when apart.

A slightly more traditional and obvious source for love poetry in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare. Sonnet 98 gives us a meditation on love and distance. In it the speaker is so distraught that their lover is not present, they can no longer recognise the beauty of nature, even as spring bursts into bloom around them.

Love lost and changed with time

Distance is not always about a physical measurement of proximity though, it can also relate to the passing of time. Lost love, love that is no longer and first loves are all forms of love that are unreachable through time.

One example that speaks to this kind of love can be found in former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, his final collection. Hughes’s relationship with his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been much written about. People have long been fascinated with the turbulent trajectory of their relationship and the tragic end to Plath’s life.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Flikr, CC BY

Many years after Plath’s passing, Hughes produced a collection of poems that he wrote throughout the decades after her death. It was published months before his own death and it can be read as an homage, a marking, an exploration and a final word on his passionate relationship with Plath:

I look up – as if to meet your voice

With all its urgent future

That has burst in on me.

For a more contemporary take on past love, I recommend reading Kim Addonizio, who has previously won the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation award and many other accolades. Love is a topic she returns to in her work time over. In her poem Stolen Moments she takes the reader back to the early throes of love, to an instance where it feels like love will never end, in which she finds a perfect memory of what it is to feel in love:

Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss

That didn’t last, but sent some neural twin

Flashing wildly through the cortex.

Alice Willitts’ recent publication With Love is a collection in which every single title begins with the word “love”. In her poem love / couples who sleep in separate rooms live longer, she refuses to trade possible health benefits for the joy of being able to:

…open a dozy eye

right into your precious face




Read more:
How to write a love poem


Love from afar and in the moment

Another former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, explores the complete arc of a romantic relationship, from the heady beginnings to the crashing end, in her collection Rapture. The opening poem, Text takes us through feelings of anticipation, excitement and desire as experienced in a brand new relationship. The moment of waiting for a lover’s message to appear on your phone, the thrill of the ring tone as it is received, the compulsion to read and reread it, over and over.

I tend the mobile now

like an injured bird.

We text, text, text

our significant words.

In the past year Duffy has invited poets from around the globe to write directly of their time during the pandemic. This has resulted in a large body of poetry, which will act as a record of lived experience from the pandemic’s earliest stages.

In the scores of poems on the project website, it is interesting to see how the themes of distance and relationships have shone through. For the poet Kim Moore:

now distance is a physical thing

that has crept into my heart

One of the most thought-provoking poems on the site draws on our primal need for intimacy as humans. It’s a need that cuts through familial, platonic and romantic relationships. In her poem Harbour Grace Nichols is willing to trade all, “for the simple harbour of a hug”. If you are unable to reach for a hug this Valentine’s Day, then finding one in a poem could be the next best thing.The Conversation

Kate North, Reader in Creative Writing, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Keats: how his poems of death and lost youth are resonating during COVID-19



John Keats by Joseph Severn (1819).
National Portrait Gallery

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University

In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.

Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.

After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.

Life sliding by

His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.

He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.

But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?

That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.

It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.

Painting of a young John Keats reading a book.
John Keats by Joseph Severn, painted posthumously (1821-1823).
National Portrait Gallery, London

The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?

Illness and isolation

Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.

It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44473/hyperion

As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.

Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.

Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.The Conversation

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Professor of English Literature, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humour in poetry should be taken seriously



Vectorium/Shutterstock

Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University

As a child, I remember laughing out loud while reading Shel Silverstein’s poetry book A Light in the Attic (1981). I loved it so much that I started reciting the poem Skin Stealer every day, to the great annoyance of my little brother. Even now, these lines still come knocking:

This evening I unzipped my skin

And carefully unscrewed my head,

Exactly as I always do

When I prepare myself for bed.

As a teenager, I was taught that poetry should be more serious. It was art – and art took itself seriously. Even now, poems designed to make us laugh are often dismissed as frivolous. This seems strange given that many of our earliest poems are comic ones. The limerick, for instance, is thought to have originated during the Middle Ages and has been used to great humorous effect by thousands, from Shakespeare to Roald Dahl.

Perhaps the crime here isn’t that funny poems have been sidelined in favour of serious ones, but that funny poems are not also considered to be serious. Humour, after all, has the power to disarm us and promote reflective thinking.

Although there are innumerable ways in which poets can be funny in their work, I have chosen pieces here which employ three different types of humour to demonstrate how poetry can make us both laugh and think.

Sexy humour

Sometimes called dirty, naughty, rude or cheeky, this type of humour works because it violates social norms. After all, it is not polite to talk about sex. But, poetry which pokes fun at bodies and desire is centuries old.

Poems in this category can range from titillating to obscene. But, beyond the tee-hees, these pieces can reveal deeper truths about sex and relationships. Take a look at the opening of The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins:

Absurdist humour

Poets who use absurdity in their work tend to operate under the assumption that implausibility is essential to comedy. Absurd humour highlights the ridiculousness of life, pushing normally accepted realities to extremes to give the audience a fresh perspective. This can be seen in Luke Kennard’s darkly funny poem The Murderer, which opens:

In his correspondence with writer Paul McDonald, Kennard discussed how this poem works to reveal the shortcomings of both characters, opening up a chance for readers to reflect on moral relativism.

Satirical humour

Satire is an excellent way for poets to respond to social trends and current events. Often, this type of humour relies on ridicule and exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. Satirical poems play an important role when it comes to challenging political, cultural and aesthetic oppression. According to the poet Matthew Rohrer, satire is a tool by which the oppressed get to make fun of their oppressors.

Satirical poetry takes many forms but one of my personal favourites is the cento – a patchwork poem made up of words or phrases directly from the person at the butt of the joke. Rob Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump does this brilliantly, particularly this piece:

There are, of course, huge swathes of humour that I haven’t even touched on here. For instance, surrealism, dark humour and observational humour can provoke important discussions, launch taboos into the light and straddle the fine line between “haha” and “oh no”.

Because humour is also highly personal, you may not find any of the poems I’ve chosen to be funny. To remedy this, I also asked poets on Twitter to share the pieces which made them laugh and, wow, did they deliver. In this thread alone, the power of humour in poetry is self-evident.The Conversation

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a lost manuscript revealed the first poets of Italian literature



Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari, 1544. Dante Alighieri,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti are depicted in the oil painting.
Wikimedia/MIA

Maria Clotilde Camboni, University of Oxford

Imagine a world where we knew the name of Homer, but the poetry of The Odyssey was lost to us. That was the world of the early Italian Renaissance during the second half of the 15th century.

Many people knew the names of some early poets of Italian literature – those who were active during the 13th century. But they could not read their poems because they had not been printed and were not circulating in manuscripts.

Then, in around 1477 the de facto sovereign of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici – “the Magnificent” – commissioned the creation of an anthology of rare early Italian poetry to be sent to Federico d’Aragona, son of the king of Naples.

The luxurious manuscript became one of Federico’s most prized possessions. It was exhibited to and coveted by patricians and intellectuals for half a century – until its disappearance in the early 16th century.

An ornate colour photograph of a manuscript from 1476.
A page from another manuscript of vernacular poetry commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1476.
Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France

But it did not disappear completely. The interest aroused by this manuscript generated a paper trail of letters, partial copies and other materials which I, along with other researchers, have managed to piece together. These documents allow us to reconstruct not only the trajectory of the manuscript through different courts in Europe, but – crucially – what works it may have contained.

Who were the vernacular poets?

Vernacular literature – that is, literature written in the language normally spoken by the people – only had a marginal role during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The “real” culture was Latin. This meant that interest in the early poets who wrote in the Italian vernacular was limited – until the flourishing of the Italian language in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

One of these 13th-century poets, Cino da Pistoia, was loved and celebrated by Dante Alighieri in his treatise on the art of poetry, “De vulgari eloquentia”. Dante said of his contemporary Cino:

There are a few, I feel, who have understood the excellence of the vernacular: these include Guido, Lapo … and Cino, from Pistoia, whom I place unworthily here at the end, moved by a consideration that is far from unworthy.

A black and white portrait of Cino.
A drawing of Cino da Pistoia from the 1808 book, Memorie della vita de Messer Cino da Pistoja by Sebastiano Ciampi.
Britannica.com

Guido Cavalcanti was another love poet. He and Dante were best friends and Dante regarded Cavalcanti as an authority on poetry. Cavalcanti is mentioned in Dante’s early poetry collection, the Vita nova.

The whole work is addressed to Cavalcanti and Dante even implies that he is writing in Italian because of him. But despite Dante’s popularity, even the Vita nova was hard to get hold of before 1576 when it was printed for the first time.

Guittone d’Arezzo was another highly regarded poet. He started as a love poet before becoming the most important author (before Dante) writing on moral and political themes.

The Raccolta Aragonese

The collection of Tuscan poetry sent to Federico d’Aragona by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1477 contained Dante’s Vita nova, as well as rare poems recovered from ancient manuscripts by Cino, Guittone, Cavalcanti and many others. The collection was opened by a letter signed by Lorenzo himself.

The manuscript was later named after its owner and became the Raccolta Aragonese (“the Aragon collection”). It became one of Federico’s most prized possessions and the object of widespread interest and curiosity.

Federico took it with him when he travelled to Rome at the end of 1492 to swear allegiance to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. During this trip, he showed it to the scholar Paolo Cortesi, who immediately wrote to Piero de’ Medici – the son of the recently deceased Lorenzo the Magnificent. In this letter, Cortesi recounts that he had been shown a manuscript with poems by early vernacular poets, chiefly Cino and Guittone. The excitement is palpable: Cortesi is able to read poems by these authors whose names he had only ever heard mentioned before.

A coin bearing the image of Federico d'Aragona
King Federico of Naples (1451-1504) portrayed on a Francesco di Giorgio medal.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Such was the interest in these lost poets that partial copies of the Raccolta started to circulate. The first one was probably made by someone in Federico’s inner circle before he became King of Naples in 1496. News about his collection of rare early Italian poems was spreading.

The widow queen and the duchess

Federico was the last sovereign of his dynasty. He lost his throne when Louis XII of France invaded Italy. When he left Naples in the summer of 1501, Federico took the books of the royal library with him. He later had to sell part of them to sustain himself and his followers during his exile in France. But the Raccolta Aragonese was not sold and after his death in 1504 it was passed on to his widow, Isabella del Balzo.

An oil painting of Isabella d'Este
Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian (circa 1534-1536).
Wikimedia/KunsthistorischesMuseum

The widow queen then lent the collection to Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, in northern Italy, in 1512. She kept it for two months and, even though in her letters she promised not to leave it in other people’s hands, it is likely that she commissioned a complete copy which led to further partial copies being made.

Even though the transmission of these copies was in manuscript form – and so not widespread – several Renaissance intellectuals managed to read these “lost” works and were influenced by them in their attempts to reconstruct the history of Italian literature.

The real game-changer came in 1527 when a printed collection of vernacular poetry finally took the works of masters like Cino, Guittone and Cavalcanti to a much wider audience. This is when they stopped being obscure and arcane authors and finally took their place in the canon of Italian literature.The Conversation

Maria Clotilde Camboni, , University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tribute to J.P. Clark, Nigeria’s nature poet



J. P. Clark was one of Nigeria’s most eco-conscious writers.
Ommoclark2020/Wikimedia

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, University of Nigeria

Everyone dies. Everything that has life must someday relinquish it. But that exit is never final. Plants and animals are generally converted into new states and reabsorbed into nature. Human beings remain alive in people’s memories for varying degrees of time. And if you leave a legacy behind, your life will truly begin after your physical death.

The passing of Nigeria’s foremost poet and playwright, Professor J.P. Clark on 13 October, 2020, has reinforced this belief.

Thousands of scholars and and readers who encountered him through his literature retain him in their memories. They also transfer his existence to future generations looking for excellence in the arts.

Throughout his exemplary life, Clark touched on various issues affecting the globe. He displayed a thorough knowledge of his world through his poems.

His writing explored politics, arts and the socio-cultural character of humans. His intimacy with nature, conveyed via his poems, has made him a favourite of eco-conscious readers.

Rich ecological imagery

Clark’s exploration of the intersection between our natural environment and literature is an inspiration to writers and critics. He often found ways to accommodate nature, even when he addressed the mundane issues within politics and academia. His viewpoints can be found in his poetry collections The Casualties and Incidental Songs for Several Persons. His poem, The Usurpation, is a great example.




Read more:
J.P. Clark: the ‘pepper’ of the Niger Delta activism stew


Clark’s constant ecological imagery shows great knowledge of, and strong attachment to, natural entities. In all their dealings, human beings operate within the natural realm, interacting with other non-human entities.

I read Clark’s poems in the 1980s. My favourites were Night Rain, Streamside Exchange and Abiku. The stories in those poems often excited feelings of empathy with the human characters.

I revisited those poems 35 years later and realised the crucial influence of the natural environment in his work. Many of his poems set in the riverine areas of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, “embody environmental metaphors, capable of projecting authentic African eco-lit” according to a study of “natural trajectories” in the poems.




Read more:
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Nigeria’s bard, playwright and activist


His exploration of nature in his poems stimulates a romantic awareness of the African ecosystem, that goes beyond the current agitations of environmental justice in Nigeria. They project 21st century African literary traditions beyond the domains of activism.

Clark’s works are multifaceted. His attachment to his home region, coupled with his training in the arts and the humanities may have conditioned him towards exploring nature in his works. And he did so alongside other nagging socio-political and economic themes that he equally projected.The Conversation

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, Lecturer, University of Nigeria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Rebecca Swift Foundation’s Women Poets’ Prize Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Rebecca Swift Foundation’s Women Poets’ Prize.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/11/the-uk-women-poets-prize-names-three-2020-winners/

2020 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the 2020 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/11/canada-cbc-poetry-prize-names-its-2020-shortlist/

2020 Forward Poetry Prize Winner


The links below are to articles reporting on the winner of the 2020 Forward Poetry Prize, Caroline Bird, for ‘The Air Year.’

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/26/158505/birds-the-air-year-wins-forward-poetry-prize/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/25/forward-poetry-prize-goes-to-audacious-erotically-charged-the-air-year

2020 T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist


The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/heres-the-shortlist-for-the-2020-t-s-eliot-prize/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/15/ts-eliot-prize-unveils-unsettling-captivating-shortlist

First World War poet Wilfred Owen, treated for shell shock, carried readers into the horror of war



Dispatch rider with pigeons leaving for firing line, His Majesty’s Pigeon Service, November 1917, location unknown.
(William Rider-Rider. Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-002034), CC BY-SA

Mark Libin, University of Manitoba

Remembrance Day commemorates the end of the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918, and the poppy is the abiding symbol of Remembrance Day in Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, including Canada.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, photograph published in a 1920 anthology of his poems.
(Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

The poppy has been associated with war remembrance in a variety of ways. But
as many who attended elementary school in Canada may remember, the poppy’s iconic popularity is often attributed to the poem by Canadian physician and poet, John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.”

I would like to submit for consideration a different poem as a more suitable and ultimately more resonant poem to guide our reflections this Remembrance Day: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

‘In Flanders Fields’

“In Flanders Fields” begins with a haunting evocation of poppies growing between marked graves of the war dead in Belgium, a description delivered by those very dead. In Canada and beyond, the poem has become a mainstream literary representation of all the wars and casualties remembered on Remembrance Day.

I have always found McCrae’s poem unsuitable to commemorate the war or Remembrance Day. Its appeal may be attributed to its melancholy focus on the makeshift graves of the dead and its earnest attempt to create an empathetic connection with the reader:

“ … Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders Fields.”

What follows from this poignant memory of being alive, however, is a command to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” and a warning that these dead will not sleep until we, the readers, avenge their death on the battlefield.

The directive to continue the war until the foe is vanquished is antithetical to the spirit of Remembrance Day as I conceive of it. It’s similarly antithetical to the finest British poetry of the First World War, including that penned by Wilfrid Owen.

Cover of 'The Hydra' magazine.
Wilfred Owen edited six issues of the Craiglockhart War Hospital magazine, ‘The Hydra,’ while being treated for shell shock, including the July 21, 1917, issue.
(The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, English Faculty Library, University of Oxford)

Poetry & shell-shock

Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” has an unambiguous anti-war message, and it works skillfully to immerse the reader in a subsuming, visceral representation of the lived experience of the frontline soldier.

Unlike McCrae, Owen never identifies the “foe” as the German soldiers in their trenches, but rather directs his ire at those at the home front who perpetuate, or simply believe in, the propaganda glorifying the war. The same can be said for Owen’s compatriot writer and friend, Siegfried Sassoon.




Read more:
Owen, Sassoon and Graves: how a golf club in Scotland became the crucible for the greatest war poetry


Both Sassoon and Owen — who met in 1916 while they were both recovering from shell shock at the Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Edinburgh — felt that young men like themselves had been betrayed as objects of hero worship by their country.

The title “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is from Horace’s epigrammatic line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country), which is still inscribed on many war memorials. At the end, the poem excoriates this motto as “the old Lie.”

Angry rebuke

Book cover with a sketch of a soldier.
Jessie Pope’s War Poems, published 1915 by Grant Richards.
(British Library)

Owen’s poem is an angry rebuke to jingoistic poets of his time, such as Jessie Pope, whose wartime poems aimed to rally and entice new recruits and lift up “war girls.”

In 28 lines, Owen strives to convey, as accurately and brutally as possible, the daily horror experienced by front-line soldiers. At once, his poem is conventional — adhering to iambic pentameter and a strict rhyme scheme — and highly innovative. His language is designed to provoke emotion in the reader, as we see from the opening four lines:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.”

The similes comparing the soldiers to “beggars” and “hags” are striking, but so too is the use of the first-person plural to describe the soldiers.

The words “sludge” and “trudge” stand out in this stanza for being distinctly vulgar in their context, while exemplifying the onomatopoeic language that Owen uses to help us experience the soldiers’ fatigue. The elongated vowel sound — “uh” — perfectly mimics the weary drag of the soldiers’ feet as they “trudge” through the muck.

The lethargic pace of the first lines swiftly accelerates when the soldiers are subjected to a gas attack:

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.”

The reader must accelerate their reading pace and perhaps even experience a quickening heart rate alongside the soldiers.

Two men carry a wounded soldier.
Bringing in the wounded, Vimy Ridge, April 1917.
(Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-001042/Flickr), CC BY

‘I saw him drowning’

The rest of the poem is focused on the lone man who didn’t secure his helmet in time, and who the narrator is forced to watch entering his death throes:

“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.”

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.“

These lines are thick with active verbs; the suffix “ing” dominates the description of the gas attack, and the lines that follow conclude the poem:

“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 …

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory …”

No peace for the dying

In these final twelve lines of the poem the “we” shifts to “you,” when Owen attacks the notion of glorifying war without any direct experience. The “you” may be both a direct reference to Pope and the kind of audience she sought to capture: Owen originally dedicated the poem in his original manuscript “To Jessie Pope, etc.,” and then in another version “To a Certain Poetess.”

The biggest shock produced by “Dulce et Decorum Est,” though, is when we realize the victim is still alive at the poem’s end — or, still dying.

Owen does not allow this man to slip off into the ruminative afterlife experienced by McCrae’s war dead. He keeps his victim suspended in the act of dying as a way of preserving the poem’s fraught message. There is no peace for this man, until “you,” the reader, reject the “old Lie” and fight to end the war.

Owen was killed in action a week before the war’s end, on Nov. 4, 1918.

Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a meticulously crafted poem of shock and haunting. It might do us good to feel such haunting, such shock, every Nov. 11.The Conversation

Mark Libin, Associate Professor, Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.