The use of the word ‘guttering’ is particularly unsettling.
A candle gutters as it goes out for lack of air, just as the man dies for lack of oxygen.
These words seem impotent and unthreatening, yet in line 9 Owen punctuates the first four short sharp words with exclamation marks. ‘Dulce’ and ‘Decorum’ are the two contentious, abstract nouns meaning ‘sweet’ and ‘honourable’, which he revisits in the final lines of the poem.
Like the troops we are shocked out of the somnambulant atmosphere of the first stanza. Joined as they are by the similar sounds of ‘et’ and ‘est’, they set a pattern for the alliteration which follows.
However, the opening spondees of lines 1, 2 and 5 serve to arrest our attention, as does ‘blood-shod’ and ‘all blind’ in line 6.
The stumbling, lurching progress of the men through the ‘sludge’ is conveyed by Owen’s use of caesura in the middle of line 5-7.It is he who will haunt Owen’s dreams as he ‘plunges’ at him, a word which carries threatening overtones, as if he is attacking Owen.This nightmare scenario is heightened by words which gather in intensity: ‘guttering,’ ‘choking,’ and ‘drowning’ in l.16.The final four lines are his injunction to the reader to avert similar suffering in the future.Stanza one is largely written using regular iambic pentameter, reflecting the relentless but, sadly, routine nature of the horror the men experience.Owen also draws the reader’s attention to the key actions and themes of the poem by his use of repeated short, single words: uses the past tense to describe the plodding retreat from the battle field, as the men ‘marched’ and ‘turned’ and ‘went’.In stanza two Owen moves the action first into the present continuous, demonstrating the immediacy of action – the men are ‘fumbling’, ‘fitting’.The first 14 lines can be read as a [3sonnet3) although they do not end with a rhyming couplet, and instead the ab ab rhyme-scheme carries on into the separate pair of lines which constitute the third stanza.Whilst the initial fourteen lines depict the situation and the events which take place, the last fourteen lines show the consequences of what has happened and Owen’s reflection on it.By contrast, the hollow emptiness of the final line is illustrated by writing only a trimeter followed by white space.The heaviness and misery of the men is reflected in the slightly dull and routine ab ab rhyme-scheme.