The Great Split - Aesthetic Formatting in Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (2/8)

Horace’s Latin adage echoes through Owen’s poem–nearly inescapably–as the title orients the reader with romantic allusion in mind. But the title doesn’t complete the well-known lyric; it only evinces the positive half of the antithetical whole–”it is sweet and fitting,” the poem begins. Yet, Owen alludes to patriotic fervor only to satirize it, juxtaposing it against ineffable terror. In fact, Owen waits to reconcile the phrase until the poem’s last line, making it obvious: those that think it sweet to die have not existed in the same spaces as these soldiers, they simply haven’t “pace[d]/ Behind the wagon (Owen 17-18), too. Owen even recognizes the impossibility of such an empathy; it could only come in “smothering dreams” (Owen 17), but not reality–in other words, in a space not of their own.  

Though by introducing the popular verse and withholding its culmination until the last lines, Owen both visually splits his poem and cognitively breaks the reader’s expectations, thus instilling vulnerability within the reader, as an opportunity to explore the space between the lines. In this, Owen calls attention to the formatting of his piece, highlighting the spaces between the bookended proverb to ensure the reader feels a similar fissure. In doing so, Owen’s utilization of a physical space in his poem’s layout conjures images of geographical dissonance, too. As such, the poem brings to mind other liminal spaces, like between trenches, or “no man’s land”. Morbid atrocities between opposing factions reverberate between the Latin lines; a debilitating march through horror, “vile, incurable sores” (24), and gruesome death occupy the distance between seemingly patriotic lines, serving to mirror the reality of such a fraught space. Between the fabricated heroism of war–the organic heart of these imagined spaces–only suffering remains.  

In an international context, Owen’s use of space elicits thoughts on continental separation, as well. For many, the war was “over there,” but Owen’s piece attempts to reframe how those that can’t be a part of his now, can still embody his feelings of now. One cannot exist on the periphery of a war, Owen demonstrates; they must situate themselves in the middle, in the spaces between the popular rhetoric, the propaganda, and the comfortable home fronts, should they continue to spout “old Lie[s] (27).