A Sort-of Sonnet and a Sestina


Examining Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is a feast for the poetry analyst. At first, the poem appears to be a sonnet, but it follows neither the Shakespearean nor the Italian sonnet form. Regardless, a sonnet is a poem that shows two contrasts in two stanzas. The first stanza examines or expresses an emotion (such as love), and the second stanza juxtaposes that emotion or pits a related contrast to the expressed emotion.

The first part of Owen’s poem appears true to form with the first eight lines of the first stanza and the six lines in the second stanza making the regular 14-line sonnet. After that, Owen seems to veer off to his own mutation of a classic poetic form by adding two lines in the third stanza, which kind of mimics the type of sonnet with two separate lines (constituting as Lines 13 and 14) and hanging at the end of the preceding 12-line stanza. However, Owen inverts it, thus confounding the reader completely. In a way, the second part of the poem, with its two and twelve lines, makes up a quasi-sonnet. Technically, the poem is made up of two sonnets of irregular stanzas.

The rhyme scheme of the first sonnet is not true to form either: ABABCDCD ABABCA. For the second stanza, the rhyme pattern acts like a continuation of the last stanza with the CA. However, it is imperative to treat this section of the poem separately as another sonnet. Therefore, the scheme is AB CDCDEFEFGHGH. Had the last two lines ended in the same sound (GG rather than GH), one would have accepted or concluded that Owen’s poem mirrored the Shakespearean (English) sonnet most closely than the other two widely accepted (Italian and the Spenserian) sonnets.

Owen’s poem depicts the horrific reality of war and his experience during World War I. The Latin title of the poem (“Dulce et Decorum Est“) converts into English to mean “It is sweet and honorable,” and the last line of the poem (pro patria mori) means “to die for one’s country,” and many soldiers sacrificed their lives for their countries. One such soldier could not get his gas mask over his face quickly:

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.

I believe Owen chose the best structure for his message so as not to be lost in the complexity and confusion of form. A sonnet is straightforward enough even with an abstract theme or topic. Had he used sestina or acrostic, these forms would have defeated his purpose. Acrostic would have made his message seem less serious. Sestina would have found him repeating certain words and phrases at intervals, which would cause his poem to acquire a plaintive, wailing chorus.

“Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop

Speaking of a sestina, Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina is a learning piece for up-and-coming poets. (I have written some sestinas and wanted to see if she stayed true to the structure of the poem.) A sestina has 39 lines of six lines of six stanzas and the last stanza of three lines. Because of its precise form, it can thread through most topics. However, it has a circuitous and rigid structure at the same time, one with a rhyming structure that calls for particular words to be placed strategically at particular places in order to achieve a particular feel.

Unlike Owen’s make-shift sonnet, the form of a sestina sometimes defeats the meaning and the message. The poet is pre-occupied with making sure he/she stays to form that meaning and message may be sacrificed. The rhyming patterns are always as follow:

Stanza 1          ABCDEF

Stanza 2          FAEBDC

Stanza 3          CFDABE

Stanza 4          ECBFAD

Stanza 5          DEACFB

Stanza 6          BDFECA

Stanza 7          EDA

The message is that a grandmother and her grandchild are in a house in September where the rain is falling during a fading light. They are reading an almanac near a stove. The summation is that since an almanac looks into the future, the grandmother is helping the child look into her future as they talk and laugh amid tears, which are hidden.

The atmosphere is sad and cozy at the same time with imagery such as the sounds, smells, touching, and so on with the kettle singing and the “little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac.” The tears from the kettle match the drops of rain on the roof.

The poem reminds the reader of the saying, “So close, yet so far away.” Even though the grandmother is in the kitchen with her grandchild, they appear disconnected in many instances and in many ways, like a generational gap. The last stanza takes away the reality of the poem and places it into a surrealistic plane.


Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Sestina.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry Fifth Edition. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, Stallworthy, Jon eds. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2005. Print.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry Fifth Edition. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, Stallworthy, Jon eds. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2005. Print.