The poem’s form is similar to that of a French Ballade. French Ballade is a form of medieval and Renaissance poetry which follows a musical format; by taking such a harmonious and conventional poetic form and then fragmenting it throughout his text, Owen is able to evoke the disruptive and chaotic effect of the events he narrates. Although the stanza lengths are set out in an irregular way, the poem could also be understood to be a pair of sonnets. Sonnets were first written in Italian, and were traditionally love poems; however, they are in essence a discursive construct that allows the poet to explore two opposed or contrasting ideas or emotions. This is shown in ‘Dulce et decorum est’ by the way the two different parts of the poem convey different messages: the first part describes the actions taking place around him, narrated in the first person; whereas in the second half Owen takes a more detached view from the action, speaking of it as a ‘dream’, almost as if he is completely outside the events he describes.
‘Dulce et decorum est’ translates to ‘it is sweet and right’. The line was originally written by the Roman Poet Horace:
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.”
["How sweet and right it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths."]
In wartime these popular words were often quoted by supporters of the war. In 1913 the first line, ’Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. T his is why in the last stanza of his poem Owen refers to ‘The Old Lie’. ‘Dulce et decorum est’ will always be one of the greatest anti-war poems, due to the way it gives the reader an intensely vivid and intimate inside view of what it was really like to fight in the trenches of the First World War. Owen’s poem, with its richness in meaning, its subtly complex form, its moments of nightmarish desperation (‘An ecstasy of fumbling’) and ironic horror (‘Obscene as cancer’), leaves us little room to believe that it is really ‘sweet and right…to die for one's country’.