‘Mental Cases’ began life as a poem titled ‘The Deranged’ in late 1917, following Wilfred Owen’s famous meeting with fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockhart Hospital. Encouraged by Sassoon, and partly inspired by his fellow war poet’s poem ‘The Survivors’, Owen set about depicting the terrifying mental landscape of those men fighting in the trenches during the First World War. ‘Mental Cases’ is a powerful evocation and analysis of the psychological effects of the world’s first mass industrial war on the young men who experienced it.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
— These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
— Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
— Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
As well as conveying the physical effects of warfare, Owen’s poetry also often captures the psychological damage wrought by the industrial-scale slaughter on the Western Front. Perhaps no poem better encapsulates this than ‘Mental Cases’, in which Owen describes those ‘men whose minds the Dead have ravished’. This poem also features one of Owen’s most arresting uses of surprising imagery: the description of how ‘night comes blood-black’.
In summary, ‘Mental Cases’ takes the form of question-and-answer, with the speaker posing certain questions about the mentally unhinged men (the ‘mental cases’ of the poem’s title), which he then proceeds to answer. Like another of Owen’s most famous poems, ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Mental Cases’ is a poem of hell and purgatory: ‘purgatorial shadows’, ‘wicked’, ‘hellish’. War is hellish; not just because of the physical suffering and the death, but because of the mental torment, the terrible mental images, which war burns into the minds of every man. It’s as if these men have died and gone to hell: there is something unreal and phantasmagorical not only about the visions they see, but the way they themselves appear.
Few poets understood, or conveyed, the power of mental torment better than William Shakespeare, and it’s possible that Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ owes something to Macbeth, although it is a debt so subtle as to redound to Owen’s, as well as Shakespeare’s, credit. The question-and-answer structure of the first two stanzas of Owen’s poem can be interpreted as Owen’s allusion to Macbeth’s question: ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean was this blood / Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.’ In Shakespeare we have ‘hand’ in the question and ‘multitudinous’ in the corresponding answer; Owen gives us ‘hand’ and ‘multitudinous’ in his question-and-answer, in addition to talking to about murder and hell (Macbeth is a poem steeped in murder and its consequences).
‘Mental Cases’ appears to have been at the back of Philip Larkin’s mind (at the very least) when he wrote ‘The Old Fools’, which takes senility rather than shell-shock as its focus, but adopts the same tone of shocked horror and the same question-and-answer structure. But Owen’s ‘mental cases’ present a different case for the psychiatrist or psychoanalyst: they are, in most cases, young men whose scars run more than skin-deep. Their minds will never be the same again, as Virginia Woolf captured with her character Septimus Smith in her novel Mrs Dalloway.