Wilfred Owen wrote the famous anti-war poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in 1917 during WWI (give it a quick read, it won’t disappoint). It is powerful and criticizes a patriotism which justifies the horrible deaths young soldiers must suffer. It also draws from Horace’s Ode III.2: Dulce et Decorum Est (from which it borrows the title).
Question: does Owen change the meaning of Horace? Is he misrepresenting Horace’s patriotism?
Horace writes: (i will not translate the whole poem)
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidoque tergo.
Virtus, repulsae nescia sordidae,
intaminatis fulget honoribus
nec sumit aut ponit securis
arbitrio popularis aurae.
Virtus, recludens inmeritis mori caelum,
negata temptat iter via
coetusque volgaris et udam
spernit humum fugiente penna.
and death pursues the fleeing man nor spares
the knee of the peace-loving youths
nor the cowardly back.
Virtue, unaware of filthy rejections,
gives light with unsullied honor
nor takes up or puts down the ax
to the windy judgment of the people.
Virtue, disclosing heaven to the guiltless dead,
having been denied forges the right road
and spurns the meeting by the vulgar crowd
and wet soil with a fleeing plume.
To clear up some idioms that don’t quite make sense: Horace is saying in the second stanza that Virtue obeys a higher standard than the arbitrary will of the people. In the third, he states that Virtue leads the innocent who have died on the battlefield to heaven. The “vulgar crowd” is presumably the common-folk who do not know how to be noble, and the “wet soil” fled “with a fleeing plume” could as well be translated: “soaring (on wing) away from the blood-stained ground.” Virtue “having been denied” seems to mean ‘killed,’ meaning the dead men. A non-literal translation would be:
Virtue, revealing heaven to the innocent martyr, once killed finds the true path and scorns the vulgar councils of men and blood stained fields, soaring away on purer wings.
Does Owen distort Horace’s depiction of Virtue and patriotic death? Owen draws a chasm between the home-bound cries of glorious death and the experience of being slaughtered on the battlefield. Owen writes that if only the viewer could see the scene of a gassed man dying he would repent of his war-mongering, his talk of how sweet it is to die for the homeland. It is a powerful poem. It makes ‘dulce’ something that only a naive widower could mutter.
But what does Horace say? Is it really naive, only speaking of the delights of death for one’s country? No. The opening line says, “That he suffer harsh poverty with joy, let the strong boy learn thoroughly by piercing warfare.” (“Angustam amice pauperiem pati / robustus acri militia puer”). The line I have translated as “Virtue, unaware of filthy rejections, / gives light with unsullied honor” could well be translated “Virtue, careless of its own life, / scatters light with pure intention,” i.e. Virtue aims higher than survival, not submitting its will to the changing will of the people. Horace also claims that those innocents who die in battle take a privileged road, soaring above the blood-soaked soil, scorning it in its ascent to the heavens. Horace does say that “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s fatherland,” but because “death pursues the fleeing man / [...] nor the cowardly back.” It is better to face battle for one’s country than to be struck down cowardly fleeing. The sense is of an inevitable fight, which Virtue aims to face. Virtue and Wickedness are the antitheses in this poem, not War and Peace.
Horace aims to instruct the reader that Virtue will face dangers, though Death may destroy him. Wicked men may make headway, but Death will inevitably catch them as well.
Does Owen misrepresent this? His poem does not answer Horace’s, since Horace’s speaks about Virtue, not naively nor in a war-mongering manner. Owen seems to be more directed against those who have used the words “Dulce et Decorum Est” to seduce men into throwing their lives away in service of an ideology or government. Horace poem stands independently as an edifice to Virtue, and particularly to the kalon nature of Virtue which justifies the loss of life for preservation of honor.
The relevant passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics comes to mind:
“With what sort of terrible things, then, is the brave man concerned? [...] Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead. [...] Now such deaths are those in battle; for these take place in the greatest and noblest danger. [...] At the same time, we show courage in situations where there is the opportunity of showing prowess or where death is noble.”
Perhaps Owen would call such deaths in battle only noble if the battle was for a noble end, but I presume Aristotle would claim that death for one’s country is noble regardless (assuming the soldier did not know positively that the war was for an ignoble end). In any regards, the last stanza of Horace’s poem is profound:
incesto addidit integrum,
raro antecedentem scelestum
deseruit pede Poena claudo.
joined the pure with the guilty,
rarely Punishment failed to appear
preceding the wicked limping by foot.
Or, in another’s excellent translation:
often careless Jupiter
included the innocent with the guilty,
but lame-footed Punishment rarely
forgets the wicked man, despite his start.