Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen
Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen is a graphic poem full of disturbing images of men who have returned from the war suffering from shellshock. Shellshock is also known as battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder. It results in a soldier’s inability to fight, slow reaction times and an inability to connect with their surroundings. It reduced the sufferer’s ability to make decisions – and they would often simply stare into space with a vacant expression. Other symptoms could include either paralysis or constant shaking. Even the mention of the words relating to war could send sufferers into fits or said them scurrying to hide. Many of those who suffered shell shock in the British army were shot as deserters – something that should be kept in mind when reading this poem.
This poem was written whilst Owen was a patient at Craiglockhart and explores different aspects of the men’s conditions. The first stanza describes the men’s appearance, the second focuses on the experiences of the men during the war that made them that way. The third stanza shows the effects on their lives. They don’t want to remember but the memories haunt them.
Owen’s creates incredibly realistic images for the reader to understand and empathise with these men.
In this stanza, Owen gives us, in terrible detail, the physical appearance of the men who are suffering from shell shock. He begins with questions that draw the reader in and ask us to consider where we stand in regard to the men. It is confronting and that is his intention. Two questions begin the stanza and more questions occur in lines 4, 6, and 9. He is asking us to consider what made these men look like they do.
The connection he makes with the reader here is exploited in the final two stanzas when he gets us to empathise with these young men made mad by war. He asks us who are these men who have been caught in ‘twilight’ and ‘purgatorial shadows’. These early images create the idea of young men caught in a world from which there is no escape. The images are very realistic and descriptions such as ‘drooping tongues’, ‘slob’, ‘skull’s teeth’, gouged these chasms’ and ‘fretted sockets’ leave little to the imagination.
The horror of the visages of the men is emphasized with the image of ‘stroke on stroke of pain’ as ‘misery swelters’ in these ‘hellish’ men. These images, based around the techniques of simile and metaphor, show the men as animal-like. This is Owen’s way of showing how the war has stripped them of their humanity. Perhaps these men are not as fortunate as those who have died as they suffer more. The oxymoron, ‘slow panic’ shows their fear is inescapable and highlights how they are trapped.
This stanza discusses the horrors of war and what these men have seen and experienced to make them look as they do,
‘- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished’
Here we see the living hell of war that these men now have with them day after day. The men that they fought with and died now haunt them in ‘Memory fingers’. Here the alliteration of ‘Multitudinous murders’ reminds us of how death surrounded them. They had ‘witnessed’ much murder and the lines,
‘Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander, Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter’
emphasises the horror bit it also gives humanity to the dead men as they ‘loved laughter’. This not only adds alliterative focus but shows how much has been lost. What makes the experience worse is that these men must ‘always’ see and hear these things. They live in a world where noisy guns shatter muscle and cause ‘Carnage incomparable’. These men can never be extricated from these images and will never return to sanity. These memories are so powerful and graphic the men have been permanently scarred.
The images of the second stanza are powerful and it is in this final stanza we see their effect. The images Owen has given us in words the men have lived and this has caused their eyeballs to ‘shrink tormented’. Both day and night are blood to them and what is the natural cycle of the day becomes painful to them. Owen gives us the impression that everything reminds them of blood. The coming of the new day horrifies,
‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds adresh’
For these men each new day is a fresh reminder of their condition, each day sheds light on a wound that will never heal. These men are the smiling dead, a reminder of the skull image in the first stanza~ These men sit and try to reach out for someone or something, ‘plucking’ and ‘picking’.
Our ‘Mental Cases’ are being forever scourged by memories of what they have seen and heard. The final two lines suggest that they are reaching out for us, ‘Snatching’ even though it is us who ‘smote them’. Owen blames us for their condition,
‘ who dealt them war and madness’
They reach out for us, perhaps for some kind of salvation but we cannot help them, in fact, we push them away because of what they are.