War Poems For National Poetry Month: Wilfred Owen, Dulce Et Decorum Est


Panama…then Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq again, Afganistan–right or wrong, for causes both just and cynical, we’ve been in an exhausting, nearly constant state of war, however distant and vaguely defined, since I graduated from High School in the 1980’s–and that was just a few deep breaths after the war in Viet Nam/ Cambodia/ Laos that defined my father and his generation.  It seems fitting to start out a series of my favorite poems with war theme.

I’ve thought of no other poem more than this one over the past two decades, which speaks volumes for Wilfred Owen, who wrote from a foxhole in World War I–the “War To End All Wars.”  In the age of biological weapons, this piece resounds like the deepest church bells on a cold, crisp night.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

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.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering 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.

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,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Commentary Uncategorized

My Favorite Christmas Recordings #15 Ray Coniff Singers: Christmas With Conniff

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.


Ray Coniff: Christmas With Conniff

Here’s another super nostalgic choice from my childhood, hammering home how much of Christmas is, for me, a sort of hazy-around-the-edges sentimentalism–a striving for “that feeling.”  I guess that Ray Conniff was some sort of chorale director–all of these songs are sung by a chorus, a really good chorus.  When I hear these songs, I still imagine a bunch of really happy, healthy, clean-cut 1960’s Americans singing on the back of a hayride–or sleigh ride–and it turns out that I’m sort of right.

This stuff is just timeless, and the more that our holiday celebrations devolve into a morass of sectarian conflict (between normal Americans and right-wing Christian jihadists… ) and commercial overkill, the more I enjoy reaching back for the seemingly unspoiled, can’t we all just get along, kind of music I heard when I was a little kid.  Of course, when I was a little kid it was the height of Viet Nam, and my first memory of watching television was sitting around my grandparents’ house while the Watergate trials played out on every channel–so it’s pretty safe to say that this nostalgia thing is more about idealization and selective memory.  I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to imagine a better past than present, as long as we use that idealized past as a touchstone to build a better future.