The tag, dulce et decorum est, with which Owen titles his poem comes from the work of the Latin poet, Horace, who lived towards the end of the first century BCE. The phrase translates as 'It is sweet and proper to die for one's country' and the whole stanza reads:-

It is sweet and proper to die for one's country
and death pursues even the man who flees
nor spares the hamstrings or cowardly
backs of battle-shy youths.

(lines 13 - 16, Odes, Book III, 2 in Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, trans. W. G. Shepherd (New York 1988), p. 131)

Horace worked under the patronage of a poetry-loving aristocrat named Maecenas, who was close to Rome's first Emperor, Augustus. Horace was thus not an anti-establishment poet, although, according to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Classical World, neither was he a court poet with little freedom of expression or integrity. For centuries, the tradition of the citizen-soldier had underpinned Rome's military success and built an Empire around the Mediterranean. For Roman society, the sacrifice of life for one's country was both common and admired.

Wilfred Owen first used the phrase, in English rather than Latin, in a poem drafted in 1915, initially called The Ballad of Peace and War. He never completed the poem. One version of the stanza reads:-

O it is meet and it is sweet
To live in peace with others.
But sweeter still and far more meet
To die in war for brothers.

(Jon Stallworthy, The Complete Poems and Fragments, p. 504)

(Meet is an archaic word which means the same as proper but perhaps carries a stronger sense of duty. It appears in traditional versions of the Anglican Communion service in the phrase, "It is meet and just so to do" (or translators' variants) in response to the clergyman's call, "Let us praise the Lord.")

In thinking about Owen's use of the phrase as title and closure of Dulce et Decorum Est, try to work out why he has chosen in this later poem to render the tag in Latin, instead of the English he had used earlier. Also, look at the chapter titles in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone. To whom do you think O'Brien is referring - Horace, or Owen,or both? What might he be trying to convey in his use of this titling?

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