A tribute to Roman soldier poet Horace and British soldier poet Wilfred Owen
On Memorial Day we remember those who died while serving their country, a holiday dating back to the Civil War, but with roots going even farther back than that.
The highest honor for a man was to die in battle for his country, or so it was believed throughout much of western history. Memorialized by Horace in his Odes, the saying is translated from Latin. The film 300 dramatizes the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) when Spartan King Leonidas fought against the Persian invasion of King Xerxes. Ephialtes betrayed the Spartans and Leonidas said to him, “May you live forever.” It was the ultimate curse, the horror of living a long life with the guilt of betrayal, knowing that others fought bravely and died for their country.
Video clip of Leonidas’ exchange with Ephialtes.
Roman lyrical poet and soldier Horace wrote in 23 BC, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” The sentiment, “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country,” was the rallying cry for many entering into service for World War I.
British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen found the opposite to be true, describing in detail the horrors of trench and gas warfare. Both Horace and Owen served as officers fighting for their country, thousands of years apart. Horace was defeated at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BC but went on to become a statesman and the most notable lyrical poet of his time. Owen was shot and killed in France during his second deployment to the frontline in 1918. He was 25.
Today, much has changed with modern technology such as satellite positioning, drone capabilities, and smart missiles, but little has changed about human nature. “Yet Death chases after the soldier who runs / And it won’t spare the cowardly back / or the limbs, of peace-loving young men.” (Horace)
Is it sweet and noble to die for one’s country? or just the old lie? Read the poets’ own words.
THE OLD LIE
Dulce Et Decorum Est
by 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.
** Excellent LINK to War Poetry Website with notes on this “Best Known Poem of the First World War”
Sweet and Noble to Die for One’s Country
BkIII:II Dulce Et Decorum Est
Book 3:2 Odes, Horace (23 BC)
Let the boy toughened by military service
learn how to make bitterest hardship his friend,
and as a horseman, with fearful lance,
go to vex the insolent Parthians,
spending his life in the open, in the heart
of dangerous action. And seeing him, from
the enemy’s walls, let the warring
tyrant’s wife, and her grown-up daughter, sigh:
‘Ah, don’t let the inexperienced lover
provoke the lion that’s dangerous to touch,
whom a desire for blood sends raging
so swiftly through the core of destruction.’
It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Yet death chases after the soldier who runs,
and it won’t spare the cowardly back
or the limbs, of peace-loving young men.
Virtue, that’s ignorant of sordid defeat,
shines out with its honour unstained, and never
takes up the axes or puts them down
at the request of a changeable mob.
Virtue, that opens the heavens for those who
did not deserve to die, takes a road denied
to others, and scorns the vulgar crowd
and the bloodied earth, on ascending wings.
And there’s a true reward for loyal silence:
I forbid the man who divulged those secret
rites of Ceres, to exist beneath
the same roof as I, or untie with me
the fragile boat: often careless Jupiter
included the innocent with the guilty,
but lame-footed Punishment rarely
forgets the wicked man, despite his start.