‘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. Read the rest of this entry
In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle pays tribute to a truly remarkable bad Victorian poet
William McGonagall. Julia A. Moore. Alfred Austin. Bad poetry has its own canon, a sort of dark reflection or negative of the other, more salubrious canon comprising Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson. And in its own way, the canon of bad verse is just as difficult to join as the good one: it takes a certain peculiar combination of self-belief, metrical tone-deafness, artistic ambition, and – perhaps most importantly – utter lack of self-awareness to produce a remarkable bad poet. A notably bad one, we might say. One poet who should be in the bad canon, but is often overlooked alongside McGonagall et al, is Theo Marzials (1850-1920).
Marzials was a British composer, singer, and poet who was born Théophile-Jules-Henri Marzials. As well as his musical work, he was also the author of a poetry collection, the wonderfully named The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873). It is in The Gallery of Pigeons that we find Marzials’ masterpiece, if that is quite the word: the poem ‘A Tragedy’, which is more of a farce than a tragedy, although undoubtedly its claim to being a tragedy is rather tragic. Here is the poem, reproduced in full:
The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop. Read the rest of this entry
‘If you were coming in the Fall…’ The key word is ‘If’. Some of the best love poems are poems addressed to an absent beloved. George MacDonald wrote a very short poem, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’, comprising just two short words of longing: ‘Come / Home’. As the double meaning of the word ‘want’ (both ‘desire’ and ‘lack’) illustrates, we want what we can’t have. Or, to borrow another old phrase: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Emily Dickinson, in her poem ‘If you were coming in the Fall’, explores this idea of missing an absent beloved.
If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed,
I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen’s Land. Read the rest of this entry