Monday, March 07, 2011


I was teaching this poem today. It's a great poem, and it moves me every time I teach it. But while I was teaching it today, I was totally struck by the bit about the blood from the gas victim's lungs being "bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues." And when I say totally struck, I mean I had no clue what to say. I don't know why that line has never brought me to a standstill before, but it was like I was seeing it and thinking, "what the hell? Where did this come from?"

Take a minute, read and think:

Wilfred Owen

"Dulce Et Decorum Est"

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.

See, isn't that a weird thing, this bit about cud, a rather pastoral (though unappetizing to me) thing, suddenly appearing in this totally unpastoral poem?

Fortunately, my students are smarter than I am, and did a great job explaining how well the image fits in so many ways, and how it speaks to other areas of the poem.


  1. I just totally have to hijack your post to share this story: NLLDH used to teach this poem in his modern world history class (so, yes, a bit different from the way you teach it, probably!). It was a big class (80 students), and one semester he planted a couple of shills in the audience, directed them to, when he raised his pen, shout "GAS!" as loud as they could. Which they did at the appropriate place, as he read the poem aloud. The students just about had heart attacks!

    Cud is such a striking, sort of visceral word in this context, definitely.

  2. Like NLLDH, when I've taught modern European history, I've used this poem. I discovered it in 1968, and I was stunned (it was my first exposure to WWI anti-war poetry/ writing, and I thought 1968 was the first time anyone had been anti-war. (In my defense, I was in junior high.) I have nothing to say about cud, but it is an odd word -- the mixing of natural and unnatural images....

  3. To me it leads nicely into the "old Lie"--the cud summoning all things bovine and unthinkingly placid (as far as one popular paradigm goes), more particularly signifying "old" food being chewed on a second time. This old lie, old food, half digested, regurgitated, ready to be offered as a platitude and to be repeated by unquestioning "innocent tongues," actually results in the vile incurable sores, conflating, in a key moment, the corruption of gas with the corruption by the "froth" of propaganda.

  4. wow. just wow. i love this discussion.

  5. I remember reading this poem in high school, and being astonished at how beautiful the grotesque was. That experience started what has become a long fascination on the topic for me.