Posts Tagged ‘Mental Cases’

On a century of Owen’s poetry

December 3, 2020

This month offers another opportunity to write about one of my favourite poets, and still the war poet par excellence, in my opinion, as we reach the centenary of the first publication of his poetry – posthumous, of course.

In a sense, of course, Wilfred Owen’s reputation is frozen in time because of his untimely death in the final days of the Great War: he left behind his personal story of bravery at the front, his struggle with shell-shock and his time at Craiglockhart. There he met and was encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon, and out of it all came the small volume which is his complete poems. There is no more: would he have gone on to greater things had he survived the war, or would he have faded into obscurity, his best work written in his twenties?

Can you remember when you first encountered his verse, and the effect it had on you? Two poems stand out for me, at school when preparing for my O Levels: the explanation of how the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth works, and the sheer horror of the images in Dulce et Decorum Est. They were the two poems everyone knew in those long-gone days, the 1960s, when interest in the Great War was re-awakened by the fiftieth anniversary.

These two poems re-appeared when I was teaching, in anthologies of poetry devised by examination boards to meet various arcane criteria, and later on A Level English Literature offered a unit on Literature and the First World War and there was the opportunity to read much more widely. For me, the Owen poem I have always found most effective and most powerful in the classroom is Disabled (you can read my analysis of it here).

Disabled is about a boy who lied and said he was nineteen in order to join up. You are talking about the age of many of the (male) students in the classes I taught. Subtly, the implications of his horrendous injuries are made clear, and it’s the fact that his age is the age of awakening sexuality which shocks most: you don’t actually need to say anything…

Or you can consider Mental Cases, which has as much of the graphic detail as does Dulce et Decorum Est, but with the added nightmare quality of mental derangement, insanity on top of physical injury. And in the latter poem, the man dies, whereas the men in the former poem survive and have to live with their visions.

There are many other Great War poets, as powerful in their use of graphic detail or in their ability to make the reader think: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney to name several. What makes Owen stand out above the others? for he does, I am convinced. His bravery, his youth and his own tragic end are part of it. His astonishing use of the poetical power and expressive possibilities of the English language must not be overlooked: just read Exposure aloud, slowly and carefully. His stance on the war itself is also important. He was not unpatriotic or anti-British; he did not shirk his duty. He did not merely seek to horrify his readers through descriptions of atrocity. Like Sassoon, he wants his readers to feel very uncomfortable: Owen is writing, as he put it himself, about ‘the pity of war’. His poems say to his readers: these things are going on, these men are suffering and dying, in your name. Implied are such questions as ‘Why?’, ‘Do you approve?’, ‘Now that you know, what will you say?’.

Poetry: Siegfried Sassoon

December 16, 2014

I’ve always been moved by the story that Sassoon encouraged and supported Owen in writing poetry while the two were both at Craiglockhart, during the First World War. And yet, they are very different poets, and, as I’ve been thinking more about Sassoon, I’ve realised that it’s for the ideas that I appreciate him most. Certainly he doesn’t experiment and play with the possibilities of the language in the way that Owen does.

For a start, Sassoon is often humorous, Owen very rarely. Sassoon’s humour varies, through the sardonic to the openly sarcastic to the very bitter as he excoriates those who remained at home and who have no idea what the men at the front are going through. This humour comes through in many shorter poems such as The General, Base Details and Does It Matter? The jaunty rhythms contrast with the horrors implicit in the words, as you realise what he’s saying, and also feel uncomfortable in that you are one of those safely at home, not able to comprehend…  the euphemisms and the lies in which we all are complicit are laid bare in poems like The Hero. It takes a while to realise just how angry the poet is with the idea that men are dying at a distance, and people at home are not fully engaged with what is going on – an idea that still persists to day as we fight in wars in far-off countries, killing people who are different from us. And we pay appropriate reverence to those who die, and then move on, allowing politicians to continue their wars, with our tacit consent.

Owen’s anger also shows in his poems, but it comes across rather differently: to me it’s covert, implicit. It lurks beneath the surface of chilling poems such as Disabled and Mental Cases.

Sassoon also offers graphic descriptions of the horrors of trench combat, as, for instance, in the paired poems Attack and Counterattack, and it’s interesting that he also derives much of his effectiveness from the same tactic of Owen’s that I referred to in my previous post, of focusing in on a single individual. For me, Sassoon’s most moving example of this is in the lengthy and slow-moving A Working Party, in which there is no combat, there is the death of a single man and the reactions of his mates, and the whole is intensified by the time-shift and double structure of the poem.

I’ve concentrated on probably the two best-known (to English readers) First World War poets, though there are many others I find powerful, effective and moving: these are the two whose collected works I have read and pondered, and who I feel, between them, probably say as much as can be said, and comprehended by a reader a century later.

Poetry: Wilfred Owen

December 14, 2014

Perhaps one is pre-disposed to warm to Wilfred Owen‘s poetry by his own tragic story: killed in action a mere week before the Armistice (but then, when you get to thinking about this, it is even crueller to realise that someone had to be the last person killed) and his parents receiving the telegram a week later, whilst everyone around finally celebrated the end…

Owen’s poetry has survived, and will, for a number of reasons. He writes about war in ways which others – equally effectively – do not: his best poems, it has always seemed to me, are especially powerful because they personalise the dreadfulness of war by zeroing in on a single individual and his fate: the blinded soldier in The Sentry, the dying man in Dulce et Decorum Est, or, most powerfully for me, the survivor in Disabled. When he focuses in close-up on the horrors, he comes from an unusual angle – the survivors in Mental Cases are unforgettable, and again, these are survivors. And in some way, these poems are filmic: a series of shots, from different angles, they link in for me with the grainy old monochrome newsreel shots of a century ago.

Owen is also capable of great cleverness in developing an idea, almost in the metaphysical sense of ‘wit’. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is my favourite example of this: the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice develops gradually, becoming subtly more and more warped and surreal as the location and the language mutates, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the trenches of Flanders, and then blasphemous as the clever men of Europe defy God’s final command to show mercy.

But what is specifically poetic about Owen? Briefly and powerfully he draws us as far as we (safely at home) can be drawn into the horrors and shows us, through visual imagery and through his use of language, as much as we can ever know. The strangeness, the eeriness he creates through his subtle and persistent use of half-rhyme in poems such as Exposure and Strange Meeting are meant to haunt us, creating places we can see and feel and yet never understand, feelings we can imagine, perhaps, but never really know. Perhaps that is his greatest achievement: he takes us as close as we can be taken to the world he lived and died in, and in a way that no other poet of his time manages to do so forcefully.

And: if you are familiar with Owen’s poetry, next time you read Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, look out for how many very carefully and subtly woven-in back-references there are to Owen’s poems (and Sassoon’s too)…

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