I will compare the poems ‘Disabled’ and ‘Mental Cases’ for my essay. I will look at the language that Wilfred Owen uses to convey the pain and hurt that war causes. I will also endeavour to examine how the poet expresses his outrage at the effect of the war in both poems. I will make a comparison between them.
Wilfred Owen was born in March 1893. He taught on the continent until 1915, when he enlisted after visiting a hospital for wounded soldiers. He said that he wanted to help, either by leading the soldiers or writing to let the world know about their plight. He achieved both. He was killed at the front line in March 1917 aged 28, just 7 days before the armistice.
Both poems take a look at the stark realties of the war. In ‘Mental cases’ he looks at the demolition of men’s minds, due to the horrors they witnessed, and experienced, while in the war. ‘Disabled’ investigates the consequences of the war for a young handsome soldier. In both poems he takes a sympathetic stance towards the casualties.
In ‘Mental Cases’ the Victims of war are explored by looking at the physiological traumas. In ‘Disabled’ it is mainly the physical consequences that are examined. Although the notion of ‘unseen’ scars that change and destroy lives always flows through his work.
The use of striking language through out the poems evokes horror in the reader. It leaves brutal and harsh imagery, which I feel lingers in your minds eye. Both works start with a line involving endings of the day. A strong metaphor Wilfred Owen uses for the end of life.
‘Why they sit here in twilight’
‘Waiting for the dark’
Both create visions of a life that is over, forfeited. Lives waiting, longing, for the calm repose of death. This is not the average Depiction of the war that most poets of this genre used. Most WW1 poetry was recording events for prosperity; they were ‘pro-motherland’ heroic chronicles. They encouraged serving and protecting your country, Making sure that the women left at home were safe, a glamorous part that all who were left behind would worship you for doing. Great propaganda for the warmongers and politicians of the time. Siegfried Sassoon was another poet who shared Owens views. In fact he encouraged Owen in his writing and introduced him to like minded writers, like Robert Graves. Graves displayed his feelings about war in a more distant but still factual way.
Wilfred Owen set out to change the perception of the whole world. No sides were taken in his works; he confronted the reader with the real war, the dehumanising effect, the senseless agony’s and hurt that war brings.
Owen uses techniques of speech and present tense to lend urgency to his work. He constantly uses all senses, sight, sound, touch and smell. Another of the ways the author enforces the content of his work is by using alliteration rarely especially in ‘mental cases’. It would make the pace and rhythm too fast and detract from the sombre message it conveys. Owen uses onomatopoeia to strengthen the visions of horror that that he is portraying. A good example of this is in line 16 of ‘Mental cases’
‘Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles’
The sound of lives being torn apart, broken and wasted.
‘Baring teeth that leer like skulls teeth wicked?’
This simile forces the image of men that are lucky to be alive. Or maybe, unlucky, depending on your opinion. My personal opinion is unlucky. The use of colour features strongly in both poems, but in distinctly different ways, in ‘Mental cases’ Black is used to show us the darkness in these poor tormented soldiers minds, the darkness of blood in their dreams and the lack of light in their lives. In ‘Disabled’ although colour is essentially imagining death and isolation, it also reiterates the fun and brightness of times past, times that will never be experienced again.
I will look at the impact of all these techniques in ‘Mental cases’ next.
The imagery conjures up the casualties of a living hell. A hell that’s trapped the victims inside their own minds. A hell that there is no escape from.
‘Who are these? That sit they here in twilight?’
A strong question that starts the first of three stanzas. Who are they, who are they, and what are they?
Our first poignant introduction to the world of the soldiers condemned to an abyss of perdition. Commissioned to endure anguish and misery by the government they trusted.
Colour is used throughout the poem;
Twilight, shadows, blood black.
It creates the impression of darkness, lost hope, and a living death that cannot be escaped. It encourages the slow mournful flow of the text.
The use of men as animals in ‘mental cases’ is symbolic. The connotations derived from this sets the readers mind in to a pitying spiral of horror. Owen uses simile and metaphor,
‘Drooping tongues from jaws that slop their relish’
Shows men that have had their humanity wrenched from them.
We see men that are in an ever lasting spiral of mental torture. A sadness and torment that’s unbearable. Unimaginable, unbelievable. Soldiers that have had their humanity wrenched from them. The darkness of being trapped in a place akin to hell for what must seem like an eternity. A life where:
‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh’
Ensnared with ghosts nightmares revisited for company. Men who have lost, had their humanity ripped from them, and are reduced to the most basic of animal responses.
‘Ever from their hair and through their hands palms’
We see the broken shells of men acting out compulsive actions, trying to remove the memories, the realities of times past.
‘Memory fingers in their hair of murders’
The ever fresh torments of the carnage and deaths witnessed. The awareness of self preservation that lead to some of the horrors.
Yet again the injustice and unfairness of war, is shown in the lines
‘Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter’
‘Always they must see these things and hear them’
Owen shows us some of the many haunting memories these men must endure, forced to turn there backs on other humans; wade through the maimed and dying in order to survive. These must be the worst horrors as it’s not just what the officialdom has ordered them to do, but what was essential for them to stay alive.
Macabre words and imagery is strong throughout this poem,
‘Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander’
This approach makes a distinct impression on me the reader. I also feel it echoes Owen’s intense opposition to the war.
The final verse brings all the others together. The first stanza, with its rhetorical questions, making the reader ask how the men became the poor creatures that we see. The last line, the last question,
‘Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish’
uses ellipsis to clarify the question.
The second verse illustrates the answers for us, giving us the knowledge that the combat they were sent into has caused the wrecks of men that we are visiting in the poem. Shocking emotion content is used to show us the humanity taken from them, the fact that they are human, real people not just statistics.
‘Rucked too thick for these men’s extraction’
A forceful end line to allegorize the grotesque carnage of war.
By the last verse we know the cause and effect of war on these soldiers.
‘Snatching after us who smote them, brother’
A sharp reminder of the combined guilt of the world, the responsibility we should feel for these men. This is reiterated in the last line,
‘Pawing us who dealt them war and madness’
An arrow of words shooting the blame at us.
Now I will look at the poem ‘Disabled’. Disabled is a much more straight forward poem, most people find physical wound easy to understand than mental scars.
The opening line uses colour to set the scene, just like ‘mental Cases’ does.
‘He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark’
‘In his ghastly suit of grey’
The sombre bleak tone hits you straight away. The usage of deep despairing shades, of dark and grey implies the isolation of the soldier.
We are introduced to a soldier that is obviously disabled
‘Legless, sewn short at elbow.’
Straight forward so far but then we are given an insight into his mental turmoil,
‘Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,’
How unfair that he can’t have fun, he can’t run around and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. There is also a religious reference; Owen used religion in a lot of his works.
We are given a glimpse of memories in the second verse.
Memories that are strong and clear to him, memories that perhaps mock him and his affliction.
‘About this time town used to swing so gay’
He is remembering the time when the town was a happy, warm carefree place for him.
Then we have good use of alliteration
‘And glow lamps budded in the light blue trees’
This is linked with another piece of alliteration
‘And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim’
The use of colour to sets the scene of a balmy summer’s night, open to all sorts of possibilities, especially of a romantic nature.
Then we are reminded of reality, we leave behind the memories of warmth and joy. These times belong to imagination and dreams only.
‘Before he threw away his knees’
We see the soldier feeling that his loss was needless, the pomp and allure of patriotic duty seems far away, faint and faded.
‘Now he will never feel again how slim girl’s waists are’
Gives us an insight into his physiological scars as well as physical. He knows that he cannot physically put his arms around a girl’s waist, but he also realises that no girl would want him now.
‘All of them touch him like some queer disease’
We quickly realise that the soldier is a young man, a striking, handsome and popular boy. We see that he can but only yearn for what he will never again have, a life he took for granted, with the optimism of youth, and he knows that. He is condemned to women looking away from him, dismissing him as the look towards ”whole” men. He cannot encircle girl’s waists; the sacrifice of his arms ensures that. He knows that it is natural to want strong husbands and fathers, providers not invalids who’ll drain them financially and physically.
We are told what a good ‘catch’ he was before he went to war; we know that he was very fresh faced and handsome because an artist was desperate to be allowed to reproduce his likeness. But now war has ravaged his looks and prematurely aged him
‘For it was younger than his youth, last year’
He knows that in the short space of a year his life has gone, has been wasted on some one else’s ideals and morals. No more does he have a sexual or loving life to look forward to,
‘And a leap of purple spurted from his thigh.’
The implications of this line are defiantly of a sexual nature, mimicry of ejaculation. Very erotic but we swap blood for semen. The irony is intense, the loss of limbs against the natural progression of creating new life.
We are given a view of his carefree attitudes pre war, and his physical prowess.
‘A blood smear down his leg’
‘After matches carried high’
The injury sustained during the match being carried like a badge of honour, more irony considering his present injuries. The sense of celebration because of his victory in ‘battle’ is in stark contrast with the present day.
Now we come to this carefree handsome young mans signing up. His reasons are youthful vanity,
‘Someone said he’d look like a god in kilts’
He is also looking back with hindsight wondering why he could have been so misled and brain washed into doing it.
We also realise that he’d ‘drunk a peg’, and thought it would impress the girls. But we also find out that he was underage
‘Smiling they wrote his lie’
The authorities knew he was too young when he enlisted, but the conscripting crew didn’t care. The lack of maturity and real understanding of what the war would be like didn’t bother them at all.
The fifth verse backs up his propaganda inspired reasoning, His visions of the glamour and benefits he would reap from the war. He wasn’t really aroused by the ‘enemy’ just aroused by the heroics and effects this would have on his life. We join in the celebrations awarded to him for going to war; we hear the ‘Drums and cheers’
But the homecoming was a different story altogether.
‘Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheers goal’
We are treated to a referral of the football match, but in comparison his welcome was very hollow. The battle of sport brought him more recognition, than when his broken body came home from the battles of war. We learn about the harsh unrelenting ungratefulness of human nature, because although the football victory was a much lesser achievement, he gets a lacklustre welcome home from the war. Outrageous as this attitude is it happened.
The final stanza leaves the reader with a bitter taste. We see this young active vigorous man reduced to relying on the pity of others.
He has become passive and is in total dependency on the whims of his carers, helpless. He has to wait for others to do the normal things in life that he cannot do for himself any more.
‘Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes, Passed from him to the strong men that were whole’
Repeating again the losses that he was tricked into living with. More irony, he now has to rely on the women to put him to bed that he once would have had no trouble wooing into his bed.
‘Why don’t they come?’
A pitiful closing of a forgotten soldier, the soldier unwanted and ignored by his peers and government alike.
So in summery now that I have juxtaposed these works, I find that both of the poems are strong and moving, both very visual and the impact makes the suffering endured very familiar to the reader, the horrors that are brought to light become only to real. We can all wonder how we would react to the pitiful maimed soldier in ‘disabled’,
‘and maybe, too please his Meg’
She didn’t stick around to be with him. Has she left him for a stronger man, a whole man? Has she let her eyes pass
‘from him to the strong men that were whole’?
The embarrassment and pain that this attitude causes are the more of an injury to the soldier than his loss of limbs.
More unseen scarring, whereas the scars in mental cases are all too obvious. And the blame for both is laid at our door, for we have
‘Dealt them war and madness’.
Wilfred Owen expresses disgust for war using memorable and understandable imagery. We are to blame, we didn’t fight against going to war, and we let the politicians seduce us.
‘Snatching after us who smote them, brother’
‘he didn’t have to beg’
Both of the poems are a shocking reminder of the effect to normal people that war freely gives out.
In both works we are shown the pointlessness and damage of war, the cruel truths gathered from Owens own experiences.
We are made to realise that the greatest suffering is not had by those killed on the battlefield, but by those who survive.
Both poems show this the bitterness runs strong. In disabled the scars seem on the surface, Owens is very direct in his portrayal of this,
‘He sat in a wheeled chair’
but then we begin to glimpse the unseen damage the constant haemorrhage of self,
‘All of them touch him like some queer disease’.
The use of alliteration in ‘
Mental cases shows the scars much clearer,
‘Multitudinous murders they once witnessed’
A hard hitting and numbing statement,
Not only does it yet again point out the immorality of war, but leads use in to introspection of how we would cope if we had endured the same officially sanctioned terrors. We are left to contemplate the collective guilt.