One became conscious that the place was full of men whose slumbers were morbid and terrifying - men muttering uneasily or suddenly crying out in their sleep. Around me was that underworld of dreams haunted by submerged memories of warfare and its intolerable shocks……. Each man was back in his doomed sector of a horror-stricken front line, where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead.
Thus Siegfried Sassoon remembers the scene in Craiglockhart where he and Wilfred Owen were patients in late summer 1917. When months later Owen was drafting MENTAL CASES he would have recalled Sassoon's poem on the same theme, THE SURVIVORS, in addition to his own 1916 fragment PURGATORIAL PASSIONS.
Owen wrote from Ripon on 25th May 1918, "I've been busy this evening with my terrific poem (at present) called THE DERANGED". Two months later at Scarborough it was revised and retitled. Owen having himself been a Mental Case, it will have been a painful poem to write.
That damage to men's minds, through war, was not more shameful than bodily wounds didn't always find ready acceptance at that time, and MENTAL CASES is both a powerful poem and a propaganda document. Owen's aim is to shock, to describe in stark detail the ghastly physical symptoms of mental torment. As in DULCE ET DECORUM EST and THE SENTRY, Owen shows men in their prime become senile wrecks.
Their abnormal condition he links to abnormality in nature.
………..on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear, night comes blood-back;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
a device he was to use later in SPRING OFFENSIVE when the troops find that "the whole sky burned with fury against them".
Again as in that poem, if nature, then super-nature also has its role to play in our greater understanding. These men are "purgatorial shadows", (2), theirs a "twilight" world (1), neither day nor night, neither alive nor dead. It is hell they suffer. "Who these hellish?" (9) demands Owen as he gazes around him. Tormented, "their eyeballs shrink" (19). Always "they must see these things and hear them" (15). They exist in an abyss from which there seems no ascent.
The close-up realism finds Owen part of the scene, the "wading sloughs of flesh" (13) recalling the corpses and waist-high slush he describes in THE SENTRY, the shrinking tormented eyes reminding him of the sentry's eyeballs "huge-bulged like squids". In DULCE ET DECORUM EST the dying man plunges desperately at Owen, while here Owen watches other men's frenzied gesticulations, hands plucking, picking and even worse.
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness. (27-8)
And so the poet acknowledges his share of that guilt which lies at the poem's core, symbolised in blood imagery: blood trodden from the lungs (14), blood shed in "carnage incomparable" (17), the "blood-smear" of sunlight (21), the "blood-back" of night (21), blood that seeps " a wound that bleeds afresh" (22).
We can tell this by the way he confronts the situation head-on, not describing it objectively but by putting himself in the role of visitor to this hospital ward where the men sit in twilight. He forces himself to see again what he has seen before, "men whose minds the dead have ravished", how their jaws "slob their relish", how fretted are their eye sockets.
"Who are these?" he asks. "Why sit they here? "Wherefore rock they?" he knows why of course as he reveals through the words of an attendant doctor, who at the end reminds Owen - and us - who it was who smote them, who dealt them war and madness.
More mundanely, trochaic metre (stressed-unstressed etc) effects a falling rhythm, depressed and heavy. Apart from an internal "batter" - "shatter" (16) Owen avoids rhymes.
Where there's alliteration - "multitudinous murders" (12), blood-black" (21), "hilarious, hideous" (23) the evil seems to inflate. Where the grammar crumbles as in Memory fingers in their hair of murders (11) the distortion corresponds to minds and bodies wrenched out of shape. Other examples of buckling: noun as adverb - "walk hell" (9) and preposition omitted; adjective as noun - who these hellish? (9) and verb omitted, also "these helpless" (13); verb as noun - "batter" and "shatter" (16) and "human squander" (17).
We sense the terror implicit in "slow panic" (5) - an oxymoron; a state of fear intensified. We shudder at the "chasms round their fretted sockets" (6) - hyperbole. We shrink from
……………this hilarious, hideous
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses. (23-4) (which contains another oxymoron).
Finally, irony gives language an edge, and the condition of these men, besides inducing pity, is beset with irony; that reason should be lost while memory remains, that falseness attach to a smile or wickedness to a leer when both are voluntary.
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, (2) we read. Purgatorial shadows. Purgatory. A place of temporary suffering. Well, that fits. But for spiritual purging? For cleansing from sin? Should it be these Mental Cases on whom the shadow of purgatory most justly falls?
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2000