Wilfred Owen's Mental Cases Analysis

Mental Cases


Wilfred Owen’s “Mental Cases” is an uncompromising description of soldiers whose “minds” have been “ravished” by the horror of war. Unable to escape their “madness”, the men remain in an awful “twilight” between life and death.

In 1917, Owen was sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital, near Edinburgh, to recover from his own traumatic experience fighting on battlefields of France. Sadly, too many people believed shell-shock was simply an excuse used by soldiers to avoid being sent to the front line. However, Owen’s gruesome and shocking portrait of these men ensures their “incomparable” anguish cannot be ignored or dismissed as nonsense.

Mental Cases

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’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ 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 blood-smear; 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.

Who Are These

The depiction of the “mental cases” must have been incredibly shocking for an audience who were maybe ignorant of the war’s brutality and the devastating impact it was having on the soldiers. Wilfred Owen certainly presents the awful physical symptoms of shell-shock very effectively.

We are told the men “rock” on their chairs and are hit with “stroke on stroke of pain”. The repetition here shows the relentless agony the men must suffer.

Their “tongues” are “drooping” uncontrollably and they are “baring” their “teeth” like a “wicked” animal. In the third verse, the speaker refers to the way their “eyeballs shrink” in fear because they no longer want to see the terrifying world. There is something particularly disturbing and repulsive about the men’s “hilarious, hideous” smiles. The obvious emphasis on their contorted faces, through the use of alliteration, draws attention to the soldiers’ understandable inability to come to terms with what they “witnessed”. It is no wonder their “hands are plucking at each other”.

The Mental Cases

Owen creates a very vivid picture of the soldiers’ psychology. For example, he sets the poem in “twilight”, which refers to the soft light between day and night, signifying how the men’s minds seem to exist somewhere between life and death. This interpretation is reinforced in the next line with the description of the men as “purgatorial shadows”. In Catholicism, purgatory refers to the spiritual space after your physical death where you purge your sins to become fit to enter heaven. Instead of being alive, the men simply exist. They are “shadows” rather than anything of substance.

The soldiers feel a “slow panic”, their eye “sockets” are described as “fretted”, “misery swelters” in their “palms”, and their “eyeballs” are “tormented”. In other words, they are being tortured by an overwhelming and inescapable fear.

Owen compares the “sunlight” to a “blood-smear” across the sky. This simile suggests their whole world is stained with blood. Even when the “night comes”, it is “blood-black” so there is no end to their suffering. The repetition of “blood” reinforces this interpretation that they cannot forget the great mass of bodies they had to “wander” through. Then “dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh”. This simile shows their mental anguish will never heal because each new day brings more memories and pain.

Ravished Minds

These soldiers are living in their “twilight” world because their “minds” have been “ravished” by the “Dead”. In other words, their sanity was destroyed when they fought alongside their fallen comrades on the “hellish” battlefields of France. It is important to note that Owen describes their memories as a physical assault on their mental health because he wants to present shell-shock, which was often dismissed as fear and cowardice, as a very real medical injury. The poet tries to focus the reader’s attention on their psychology by connecting “men” and “minds” through the alliteration of /m/.

The soldiers cannot escape the incurable “memory” of the “multitudinous murders they once witnessed”. Once again, Owen ighlights the link between “memory” and “multitudinous murders” through alliteration. The repetition of /m/ in the third line of this verse also emphasises the crowds of men who were slaughtered, and the poet’s use of the emotive “murders” rather than a more objective word, such as “death”, clearly demonstrates his bitter attitude towards the army leaders and politicians who sent these soldiers off to die.

Owen reminds the reader of trench warfare’s effect on the servicemen in the line “always they must see these things and hear them”. The adverb “always” suggests the soldiers cannot forget the terrible sights and sounds of war. This is reinforced in the last line of verse when he reveals the “men’s extrication” from these dangerous memories is impossible. Their “minds” will always be “ravished”.

The Horror of War

In the second verse, Wilfred Owen wants us to focus on the “multitudinous murders” rather than the “batter of guns” because the death of so many soldiers is the true horror of war. The repetition of “murders” introduces this point and the polysyllabic “multitudinous” suggests the huge number of fatalities is beyond our comprehension.

The “carnage” is “incomparable” so there has never been such a waste of human life in our history. The consonance of /k/ in these two words, which falls on stressed syllables, the three nasal consonants and the plosive /p/, forces us the reader to properly articulate the image and try to understand the “human squander”. This reckless waste of life is “rucked too thick” for the soldiers to ever escape.

In perhaps one of the most chilling moments of the poem, Owen describes the soldiers “wading sloughs of flesh” and “treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter”. It is this memory of having to “wander” through the “shatter” of “muscles” that has turned the men mad.

Structure and Verse

“Mental Cases” is divided into three stanzas. The first stanza contains five interrogatives, such as “who are these” and “wherefore rock they”. In this way, Owen is challenging the reader to look at these “purgatorial shadows” and question “why” they are so mad.

The second stanza provides answers to these questions and reveals “these hellish” are soldiers who have suffered “carnage incomparable” and how “always they must see these things and hear them”. Their “pain” is inescapable and they will never come to terms with what they “witnessed” on the front lines.

The third verse makes the connection between “war and madness” obvious – the adverb “therefore” and the repetition of “thus” firmly establishes the link. There is a wonderful logic to the poem’s structure which is antithetical to men’s insanity.

The pronoun “these” is used five times to define the men five in the first two verses of this rhetorical triple. Owen uses the pronoun “they” four times, “their” appears eleven times, and “them” three times. “Men” appears twice. By reducing the “men” to pronouns, the poet questions their very existence because they have lost their identity.

In terms of verse, the poem has a trochaic pentameter base. The last line is an excellent example:

Wilfred Owen's Mental Cases Meter

Reading through the poem, there always seems to be that falling rhythm you would expect from the use of trochees. There is no rhyme scheme, but the few end-rhymes in the poem have unstressed syllables closing the meter. For example, “other” and “brother”. However, “perish” and “hellish” are so far apart in the first stanza, this echo of /ʃ/ is satisfying but unexpected.

The poem’s tone of despair is certainly supported by its gloomy rhythm.

The Poem’s Message

The narrative suddenly shifts in the final lines with the use of the inclusive pronoun “us” and the familial term “brother”:

—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.

By positioning the reader in the poem, Owen is trying attack the general public who believed the propaganda that the war was going to be glorious and pressured the young men to volunteer to enlist. He is also attacking the politicians and generals who sent their soldiers off to die.

Owen uses the alliteration of /s/ in “snatching” and “smote” to connect the two words and reinforce the message that there are people at home who need take some of the blame for the men’s suffering because they “dealt them war and madness”.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why might a writer start a poem with questions for the reader?
  2. What are the meanings of the words “twilight” and “purgatorial”? Is there any connection between the images?
  3. In your own words, describe the image of the men in the opening four lines of the poem.
  4. What is your reaction to the simile, “baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked”?
  5. What impression do you get of the men’s eyes?
  6. What is the overall impression created of the soldiers from the first stanza?
  7. Make a list of references to body parts in the second stanza. What effect is the poet trying to create by including these images?
  8. Why are the men suffering shock?
  9. Why might the poet have used alliteration of the /m/ sound in the phrase “multitudinous murders”?
  10. What other sounds are repeated in the second stanza? Suggest reasons why Wilfred Owen uses onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyme.
  11. What is “sunlight” being compared to in the third stanza? Is this an appropriate comparison?
  12. Is the simile “dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh” effective?
  13. Why does the poet want to draw our attention the alliterative “hilarious, hideous” image of the men’s heads?
  14. Why do the men’s smiles have the appearance of “awful falseness”?
  15. What do you think is the poet’s attitude to war?

Learn More

Thanks for reading!