Memorial Day 2008 (continued): The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori / What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
"Gassed" is a huge painting which hangs in the Imperial War Museum in the Lambeth section of London. The American John Singer Sargent had become famous painting beautiful young aristocratic women. When World War One broke out, the British government invited him to the war front in France to paint scenes of the war.
The diagonal ropes in the lower right are the guy ropes of a medical aid tent, toward which a squad of soldiers, blinded by a cloud of poison gas (probably chlorine) is slowly headed, like the Blind Mice. Below, Sargent's studies of the soldiers' faces.
Thanks to Jim Olson for posting Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" to the Memorial Day 2008 post. It's reprinted here, along with Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth."
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" -- "Sweet and proper it is to die for your country" -- is from Virgil's Latin epic poem "The Æneid." Though the story of the mythical Trojan founders of Rome, "The Æneid" was intended as a memorial to the annihilation of three Roman legions under Varus in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany in 9 A.D., a profound shock to Rome's people and the emperor Augustus. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Roman soldiers were killed by a coalition of German tribes led by Arminius.
According to the biographer Suetonius, upon hearing the news, Augustus tore his clothes, refused to cut his hair for months and, for years afterwards, was heard, upon occasion, to moan, "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!" ("Quinctili Vare, legiones redde!").
From the 2002-2003 exhibit "Anthem for Doomed Youth, Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War," by the Imperial War Museum:
Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918) was born into a prosperous home in Oswestry, but two years later his family was obliged to move to a modest house in Shrewsbury and then to Birkenhead. His mother encouraged his ambitions to restore the standing of the family. From 1911 he worked as a lay assistant to an Oxfordshire vicar, but became increasingly disillusioned with the Church.
When war was declared Owen was in France, where he had been employed as a private tutor. He returned to England and joined the Artists' Rifles in October 1915. He was subsequently commissioned into the Manchester Regiment and was sent to France in December 1916. In April 1917, after a traumatic period of action, He was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was sent back to Britain. At Craiglockhart War Hospital he met Siegfried Sassoon. There, with Sassoon's constructive support, he found his poetic voice, writing such poems as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'. Owen returned to France in August 1918. He was awarded the Military Cross in October, but was killed in action on 4 November.
His family received the telegram reporting his death as the Armistice bells were sounding in their home town.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
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.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.