‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Owen's 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' (1917/1920)

Horace's desperately famous line, 'it is a sweet and proper thing, to die for your country', is (of course) invoked here with savage irony. Harry Eyres in his Horace and Me (Bloomsbury 2013) notes that 'few poets have ever stuck the knife in deeper to a fellow poet than Wilfred Owen ... quoting Horace's unforgiveable line'. Here's the poem's final stanza.
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
It's about the physical horrors of war, of course; but it's also about the dangerous power of poetry, or more broadly of literature and oratory. The German gas turns the lungs and mouth into horrors, but lungs and mouths, poisoned by 'froth' (Latin spuma and fervo both mean 'froth', but they also both mean 'steam', 'anger' and 'rage') and tongues twisted in vilely incurable ways, made the war happen in the first place, and persuaded young men to sign up for it.

The Latinity of the poem is certainly interesting; and rather hard to ignore, given its title and pay-off lines. Rhyming 'patria mori' with the prosodically equivalent 'desperate glory' ['— ᴗ ᴗ — ᴗ', or '— — — ᴗ', depending how we want to scan it] makes one bludgeoning ironic point. But take the phrase 'froth-corrupted lungs'. Froth is spuma, lungs are pectora. The reference here, I think, is not to Horace, but to Lucan, who includes this famous description of a dying horse in his account of ignoble Civil War:
fessa iacet cervix, fumant sudoribus artus
oraque projectâ squalent arentia lingua,
pectora rauca gemunt, quae creber anhelitus urguet,
et defecta grauis longe trahit ilia pulsus,
siccaque sanguineis durescit spuma lupatis.

The exhausted neck drops down, the limbs reek of sweat, the tongue protrudes and the mouth is harsh and dry, the lungs are seized by quick panting convulsions and gasping murmurs emerge from the labouring breath, the worn-out flanks—and the froth dries and sticks to the bloodstained bit. [Pharsalia, 4:754-8]
That's not irony; it's marking the ghastly connections between war then and war now. Owen plays some quite complex word-games, too. The sores on the tongue (a sore is ulcus in Latin) are vile (nequam): so the many vilenesses that have provoked this sore have made ulcus nequorum. Tempting to think that Owen was on some level thinking of the sour shadowing of dulce & decorum by ulcus & nequorum. The Latin phrase 'ulcus tangere' (it's from Terence, but was widely used) literally means to touch an ulcer, or more broadly means to 'touch a sore spot' or 'refer to a sensitive issue', which this poem is clearly, and deliberately, doing.


  1. To note a revision in the post. In an earlier draft I cited the plural of ulcus as ulci (which would make the 'ulci et nequorum' phrase closer to the Horatian phrase). But then I checked, and the plural of ulcus is ulcera, so that was flat wrong.

  2. This is an interesting post. Do you know whether Owen had more Latin than the average British schoolboy? ulcus & nequorum is clever, but I can't find an occurrence of nequorum (at least, not in in L & S), nor is it clear what that would mean.

    My feeling has always been that Owen did not have to reach far into philology to find the line, that it was probably on the lips of many in the lead-up to WWI, as was the overall feeling that glory in death in war was, as the poet said, dulce et decorum. The old lie was oft-repeated, too.

    One argument against Owen having a particularly deep knowledge (or, perhaps, of exhibiting such, regardless of his education) is that the meter of the second to last line makes it clear that he has ignored the elision between dulce and et.

    Interesting thoughts!

    1. Thanks for the comment: it is interesting, I agree. 'Nequorum' is the neuter (b/c 'ulcus' is neuter) genitive plural of 'nequam'; so the phrase would mean 'vilenesses' sore'. It's an interested question as to how much Latin Owen had. It's true he wasn't educated at any posh public school; but he was educated. He worked as a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury, where Latin was on the curriculum; and passed the matriculation exam for the University of London. He seems to have had a skill for languages: studies Old English at Reading Uni (something hard to do without some Latin), and spoke French very well -- taught English and French before signing up.

      The elision thing is a good point. Then again it also applies (though in a less systematic way) with English -- 'desperate glory' can be four syllables, or three if we elide a syllable in the first word ('desp'rate glory'), which is not a million miles away from Horace's 'dulcet decorum'. Quite a few words in the English are liable to elision: 'smoth'ring', 'inn'cent' and so on.

    2. '... studies Old English ...' >> '... studied ...'

    3. Sounds like he knew what he was doing, then. I forgot that the other elision in Horace's line is between decorum and est, which would make the line very unmetrical in English (it would sound dulcet decorumst (or decorest). Again, I really don't think that it detracts from the poem--in fact, it strengthens the effect, since the line may have been so popular (regrettably, in his opinion) that it went around on men's lips out of context and mispronounced. That, then, would not be the way he would read it when reading Horace, but how those who are themselves such ardent advocates for glory in war.

      As to the Latin, I only see nequam as an indeclinable adverb in the big Lewis and Short dictionary (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DN%3Aentry+group%3D10); the form nequorum would only come from an adjective whose headword was nequus. (But all that does is prove that it's not classical--there's been plenty of Latin since Horace!) But if you'd like the adjective to be genitive plural, then wouldn't you have to change the noun, too? So the phrase would be ulcerum nequorum, which wouldn't produce quite the same effect.

    4. That's a very good point. I was assuming nequam would go like aequam (of which it is the negation), but you're clearly right on the need for agreement. From Owen's poem 'vilely' ought to modify 'incurable' and so would stay as nequam. And once we start trying to rustle up possible Latin phrases to preserve the parallel with dulce et decorum we do go down a rabbit hole. I concede the whole idea was over-reaching and implausible!

    5. In the words of the heroes of Galaxy Quest, "Never give up! Never surrender!"

      Love your blog!

    6. Hah! Thank you! (and I still believe it would be possible to construct a meaningful Latin sentence that contained 'uclus' and 'nequorum' ... somehow ...)