Mental Cases

​Context

Wilfred Owen in this poem describes the experience which he himself had in Craiglockhart when he and Siegfried Sassoon (another war poet) were patients together in 1917.

 

Stanza One

  • In the first stanza, Owen questions who or what the creatures are who survive in this place.

  • 'Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?' Owen presents the dehumanisation and disorientation of those affected by shell-shock as though he too were in a hellish landscape filled with those who do not understand who or where they are. 'Twilight' suggests a half-light between states and places, showing their disorientation. It also suggests a waiting place before the night of death. Short rhetorical sentences are used to show vividly the utter strangeness of this place, as though these people cannot be identified anymore.

  • 'Purgatorial shadows' - Purgatory refers to a place where certain Christians believe people who can't go straight to Heaven to go. It's a place of cleansing or trial for those who neither suit heaven nor hell - a waiting room where people need to be cleansed. In this poem it refers to the in-between state of the men, half in hell and half in heaven, shown again by the disorientation. 'Shadows' of course shows that half-life these men are leading and also creates a dark and ominous atmosphere.

  • 'Baring teeth that leer like skulls' tongues wicked?' - Again dehumanizes the men in a very animalistic description, as well as a conflation of the senses, the teeth themselves leer as eyes would usually do, suggesting great trauma to the body. Assonance is used in 'skulls' tongues' to creates a gory image of skulls with tongues still in them, and also uses the assonance to create rolling sensation, as though the tongues are rolling, which is then countered by 'wicked', a sharp and quick verb.

  • 'but what slow panic/Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?' Owen questions the hollowed eyes of the men, almost as though their flesh has been brutally 'gouged' by a 'slow panic'. 'Fretted' refers to 'fretting' or anxiety, showing the panic of the men. 'Slow panic' furthermore uses juxtaposition/oxymoron to create a sense of disorientation as well of the hellish reality of being forced to panic forever. 'Slow panic' seems to just draw out the awfulness.

  • 'Surely we have perished/ Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?' Finally Owen shows his own disorientation, saying that 'surely we have perished' and are walking through hell in their sleep, but they do not recognise 'who these hellish' are, because they are simply shadows of themselves. 'who these hellish' also indicates that all their identities and lives have been taken away, perished with their sanity. Might also think of sanitisation with the title 'mental cases', which is made to sound clean and medicinal, unlike the reality of what these men are going through.

 

Stanza Two

  • This stanza depicts the effects of memory upon the soldiers

  • 'These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished' - Owen answers the questions he has posed in the first stanza, using alliteration of 'm' throughout the first three lines of the stanza. This emphasizes the sound of 'm', linking 'men' with 'memory' and 'murder' showing how these idea recur in the men's minds, like alliteration recurs in the lines. The 'Dead' are capitalised and are shown as having 'ravished' or completely destroyed the minds of the men, showing how memories of dead soldiers destroy the minds of these men.

  • 'Memory fingers in their hair of murders' - 'Murders' openly criticises the killings these men have had to commit against others, and have had committed against them. 'Memory fingers' is an incredibly haunting image of the disembodied hand reaching out to clutch them , showing the trauma of memory. Fingers in their hair may show people reaching out and grabbing them, it may reflect the position of somebody in a state of trauma. Interestingly, the 'hair' becomes 'of murders', as though their bodies themselves are infected with murdering.

  • 'Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander/Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter' Internal rhymes create an echo of past laughter that sounds when combined with 'sloughs' and 'wander' almost like 'slaughter'. Shows how past happiness is turned to death and murder. 'Wading sloughs of flesh' shows them walking through the dead, and also their own flesh sloughing off, showing how they are mentally torn apart. '''Wander' at the end of the line, as though almost wandering off the edge, and the men are described as 'helpless' - they cannot escape their memory. 'Treading blood from lungs' uses assonance to reinforce rhythms, showing the heaviness of the tread, suggesting men treading through a gas attack. Repeated liquid syllable of the 'l' suggests the sound of blood flowing through the line, and also creates a smooth flow of sound from 'lungs' to 'loved' and finally to 'laughter'. Creates a smooth flow into the juxtaposition between blood and laughter, and between beauty and death.

  • 'Always they must see these things and hear them/ Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles'. Owen tells the reader how the soldiers cannot escape the trauma and memories which now assault them, in the sonorous yet tactile verb 'batter', as though the sound is assaulting them, which is then repeated in 'shatter', suggesting the volley of guns. Sounds aggressive through the sharp sound of 't' and the flat, harsh sound of the 'a'. 'Flying muscles' initially sounds like it should be beautiful, despite the horrific image. 'Guns' and 'muscles' are linked through assonance, showing cause and effect.

  • Heavy use in the poem of sound techniques gives the idea of distorted reality, as though this isn't all quite real.

 

Stanza Three

  • Stanza Three describes how the soldiers will continue to live with the effects of war

  • 'Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented/Back into their brains' - Owen changes the tone of the poem into argument with use of 'Therefore' and 'thus' in this stanza, showing and defending how the men have become this way. 'Still' suggests the ongoing nature of shellshock, which cannot be got over. The idea that the eyeballs 'shrink' back shows the way they simply want to hide their sight, refusing to see any more of this horror. Creates again an image of a writhing body in distress, making it purposefully gruesome for the reader. Alliteration and assonance create stress on the ideas given in these lines.

  • 'Sunlight seems a blood smear;night comes blood-black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh;' Incredibly powerful lines use alliteration and assonance create the sense of a 'tongue-twister', showing the aggressive difficulty of these men's lives now. The entire world is stained with blood for them, even oxymoronically 'sunlight' seems stained with 'blood' and 'Dawn' is seen as a simile in a 'wound that bleeds afresh'. Day itself then, and by extension life is simply a system of wounding the mind. Sounds repeat in the line like blood repeats, staining everything. Nothing can be anything but fighting and wounding for these men now. Everything is a wound to be opened.

  • 'Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,/Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses;' Owen now justifies the behaviour and expressions of the men, saying that the 'set-smiling' of the men is not triumph that they are off the battlefield, but instead simply the smile of a skull, which falsely reflects what they are feeling. Image of corpses and skulls creates a horrific juxtaposition between smiling and the lack of happiness seen here. Creates Owen as a protector/parent-figure of these children who cannot now understand the seriousness of their situation. 'Hilarious' suggests not laughter, but hysteria instead. Significant that 'their heads wear' smiles, as though they're a mask rather than an actual expression.

  • 'Snatching after us who smote them, brother,/Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.' The men are attempting to 'snatch' after the visitors and nurses, portraying the anger and irony of the way in which people see them as 'brother' but did not protect them at all. 'Smote' here is an extremely Biblical verb, as though these men have been utterly destroyed by society, using the sibilance to create the harsh whispers of the 'snatching.' 'Pawing' again dehumanized the men, suggesting them as animals. 'Dealt' furthermore suggests that the government gave them a fate they can't refuse, almost as random as though this is all purposeless. 'Dealt' by having connotations of a card-game suggests the meaninglessness and senselessness of the war.

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