"Autobiographies of great nations are written in three manuscripts – a book of deeds, a book of words, and a book of art.
Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." - Leo Tolstoy

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so
great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour
is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wilfred Owen - Dulce et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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.
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.


Supplemental Notes

Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria mori is a line from the Roman lyrical  poet Horace's Odes (III.2.13) roughly translated into English as "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." In a letter written by Owen  to his mother he transcribes it as: "The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!"

Written in 1917 and first published in 1920, the above poem can be found in: Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Early drafts of the poem contain the dedications 'To Jessie Pope etc' and 'To a certain Poetess'. Before World War I, Pope was the author children's books and light verse, her war related verse was collected in 1915 in Jessie Pope's War Poems and More War Poems.

Further Context

The poem from which the line comes exhorts Roman citizens to develop martial prowess such that the enemies of Rome, in particular the Parthians, will be too terrified to resist them. In John Conington's translation, the relevant passage reads:

To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian's dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant's matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain'd in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death's darts e'en flying feet o'ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.*

*The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace, John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882


The line has been commonplace in modern times throughout Europe. It was quoted by Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, immediately before his beheading on Tower Hill, London, in 1747. It was much quoted in reference to the British Empire in the 19th century, particularly during the Boer War. Wilfred Owen used it satirically in his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" which was written during World War I. (Owen was killed in action one week before the war ended in 1918.) In WW2 Glyndwr Michael was buried under the gravestone bearing his post mortem alias: William Martin Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori.

A humorous elaboration of the original line was used as a toast in the 19th century: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae" In English this is rendered as: "It is sweet and right to die for the homeland, but it is sweeter to live for the homeland, and the sweetest to drink for it. Therefore, let us drink to the health of the homeland."  (Ludwig Berg, "Pro fide et patria!", Böhlau, 1998, p.144).

Sappho - Ode out of Longinus

Sappho, c.610 - c.580 BC

Translated by William Bowles (17th century)

Ode out of Longinus


THE Gods are not more blest than he,
Who fixing his glad Eyes on thee,
With thy bright Rays his Senses chears,
And drinks with ever thirsty ears.
The charming Musick of thy Tongue,
Does ever hear, and ever long;
That sees with more than humane Grace,
Sweet smiles adorn thy Angel Face.


But when with kinder beams you shine,
And so appear much more divine,
My feeble sense and dazl'd sight,
No more support the glorious light,
And the fierce Torrent of Delight.
Oh! then I feel my Life decay,
My ravish'd Soul then flies away,
Then Faintness does my Limbs surprize,
And Darkness swims before my Eyes.


Then my Tongue fails, and from my Brow
The liquid drops in silence flow,
Then wand'ring Fires run through my Blood,
And Cold binds up the stupid Flood,
All pale, and breathless then I lye,
I sigh, I tremble, and I dye.


Supplemental Notes

The above translation can be found, for example, in:

  • Tate, Nahum, ed. Poems By Several Hands, and on Several Occasions London: for J. Hindmarsh, 1685.

  • Poole, Adrian, and Jeremy Maul, eds. The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

  • The anthologist, Nahum Tate, was Poet Laureate of England from 1692 until 1715.