Wilfred Owen and the Poetry of Trauma

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Poets are often blessed and cursed with taking up a position at odds with public opinion. In and through their writing, they are often able to articulate sentiments that, otherwise, remain censored. This was certainly the case with the poems of Wilfred Owen, one of the leading poets of the First World War. An English poet and soldier, he experienced first hand the horror of the trenches and gas warfare. In contrast to patriotic words of other poets at the time, such as Rupert Brooke, Owen has a voice more obviously characterised by desperation and disgust. His poems are a cry to bring an end to the carnage.

Heavily influenced by his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, Owen’s more famous poems include ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, ‘Insensibility’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, among many others. The poem I’ve often found particularly striking though is ‘Mental Cases’. Here, the battle scars of conflict, physical and psychological damage, are presented in all their starkness and severity:

 

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.

 

Owen is writing of course about shellshock or what today we might understand in terms of trauma or PTSD. With more recognition of the effects of war in recent years, and more discussion in the media of trauma, this subject is particularly relevant to the present moment. It is also important in terms of acknowledging how war can have lasting consequences, so often concealed or lost in the attempt to privilege notions of courage, nobility, victory –  or seeing death as the ultimate sacrifice. Arguably, though, perhaps a more difficult sacrifice to bear is one’s sanity or dignity, as a half living or profoundly wounded casualty. The traumatised soldiers that Owen writes about have, and still continue to be, largely neglected or hidden, representing as they often do the signs of ongoing pain and tragedy, sometimes long after armistice or active duty.

Maybe the mental breakdown that Owen writes about is more taboo and clandestine than physical scars. Whereas a lost limb or disfigurement may be a sign of bravery or resilience, the rocking and slobbering wrecks depicted in the poem are reminders of male vulnerability; for this to be revealed  runs against a great deal of myth and propaganda. Rather than held up as symbols of heroism and valour, these madmen – driven mad by the war’s madness – ultimately speak to what is most fragile in ourselves (and wrongfully seen as shameful).                

Owen is brutal in his description of the front line where the men waded through ‘sloughs of flesh’, or walked across corpses, squeezing ‘blood from lungs’. This is a poetry of revulsion, not only with regard to the nature of the War in particular, though also presenting in graphic detail how abject a warzone can actually be. Likewise in our present time, vivid images of blood and gore are usually airbrushed and sanitised through our media channels. Many would be far less bellicose in future, I think, if they were better able to relate with those disabled by military action: to see themselves or a family member as a potential mental case.   

◄ Poetry & The Great War, a series: 6 Victory?

American Life in Poetry: The Appearance of Modernism ►

Comments

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M.C. Newberry

Wed 21st Nov 2018 15:21

A coda to Owen and the conflict.
While it's generally mentioned that Owen's
reputation is based firmly on his "anti-war" poems, there are other lines that
indicate a conflict in his personality and his approach to the business of war -
plus the fact that despite persuasion from
his contemporary and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to the contrary, Owen insisted on returning to the fray (a rather odd decision,one might think), to be killed in action in the days leading up to the Armistice.
This action and less quoted lines by Owen, tend to suggest a more
complex frame of mind than that assumed as his primary attitude to the world-changing conflict about which he wrote
so graphically.

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jan oskar hansen

Sun 18th Nov 2018 10:45

Wilfred Owen`s poems are a beacon of light, the same cannot be said of the First War 1, which is chiefly remembered because of so many of the upper-class young men perished

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Greg Freeman

Tue 13th Nov 2018 15:57

I've given a link to this anthology before, but no harm in repeating it - Neil Astley's The Hundred Years' War https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=43187. My review back in 2014 mentions a couple of first world war German poets, and I'm sure there are more in the anthology. Not saying that their names have resounded in the same way as those of Owen and Sassoon, but perhaps that's partly because the German attitude to its two twentieth century wars has always been different to ours.

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 13th Nov 2018 15:35

This has developed into a useful and informative forum
JFK's point about the absence of WW2 poetry, compared
to the volume from WW1, is interesting. It is surely the
product of a more cynical change in human attitudes -
perhaps finding its origin in the shock and anger that
preceded it and less ready to respond for that reason.
A poet like John Pudney ("For Johnny" and "The Letter")
is the exception and even he kept his lines brief and to
the point in contrast to the verbosity found in much of the
stuff from WW1. The war-weariness and its acceptance is much more evident two decades on from "the war to end to end all wars".
As for the Germans - a Prussian view and acceptance of militarism, was their raison d'etre for marching across the borders of other lands and that quasi-religious belief had no
time for poetry - unless you include
those strangely attractive "strutting"
songs they used to sing and which
surely served the same purpose as the more wry and sardonic songs
sung by British WW1 troops.

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John F Keane

Tue 13th Nov 2018 11:41

I would guess Isaac Rosenberg would fit the bill as a working class war poet, though I can't think of many others (and even he was a product of Jewish respect for education and attended a top art college). Niall Ferguson suggests that our image of war is distorted by over-emphasis on middle class reportage; many working class men actually enjoyed the excitement and comradeship of war. Remember that they had no romantic ideals or experiences to contrast the war experience with, unlike the upper middle class.

Something else that interests me is the exceptional English response to the war in terms of poetry. There are no German equivalents to Owen or Sassoon, for instance; yet Germany has a great literary heritage and its losses in the war were much heavier (2 million dead and many more wounded). Perhaps the German view of war as a pragmatic, professional activity explains the difference. Also, Germany already had a well-developed system of technical education which distanced many Germans from literary culture from a young age.

Graham Sherwood

Tue 13th Nov 2018 10:23

JFK you make some very good points. However, much overlooked are the ordinary "letters home" from those in the trenches that are occasionally aired on the radio etc. I'm not aware of an anthology of such letters (there might be one or two) but there is a poetry in amongst them which is clearly unrecorded. Education (which most of the WW1 poets enjoyed) does shine out but it would be lovely to see more of the "ordinary man's work" brought to the fore.

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John F Keane

Tue 13th Nov 2018 09:47

I have been thinking about poetry and WWI and why the two are so intertwined in the UK. No other country or war produced such a rich poetic response and the WWI poets stand miles above all other war poets in stature and popular appeal.

Some reasons for this?

1. WWI occurred in a literary era prior to the rise of a modern mass media. People considered literature the default mode of self-expression.
2. WWI occurred when most educated people were still raised part of a canonical literary culture based on the Greek classics and the King James Bible. Hence poetic references to these things were widely appreciated.
3. At the time, translating Greek and Latin verse was a central feature of British middle class education. Consequently, the sheer quality of the poetry was very high. Subsquent generations did not have this default 'poetic' education.
4. Because of 3, WWI poetry was still defined by populist poetic devices such as rhyme, metre and alliteration. These are simply popular with laypeople, explaining the war poets' lasting populist appeal.
5. The War touched everyone as a kind of folk memory, which keeps the poetry alive. Remembrance Day always invokes the war poets and their works.
6. WWI was a seismic transitional event which ushered in the age of modernity and saw the decline of an older world based on mass religious belief and social conformity. The poetry captured this transition perfectly as idealism confronted the new industrial reality. WW2 lacked this quality utterly.
7. It is a bit controversial, but WWI was unusual in that it was the first war to be fought by all British social classes. Prior to it, the British military was staffed by a pragmatic officer class and underclass minions. Unsurprisingly, these people did not produce much in the way of war art, poetry or whatever: the military was just a career for them, not a diversion imbued with complex ideals. The same is true of the contemporary military, which has reverted to this professional elite/underclass model in the UK. WWI was unique in that the educated middle class fought in it - and that class are the typical creators of poetry, art, memoirs and so on. Most of the best war poets were intelligent public schoolboys who would have never have joined the army except for the war.

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 12th Nov 2018 17:46

It is surely true, and will continue to be so,that those who
experienced the horror of conflict constrain their thoughts
and confine their conversation with those who share their
experiences. This has been remarked on by those who
have served (eg been there and done it) and their return
from conflict has met attitudes that have endorsed their
own decisions to keep their knowledge and suffering to
themselves. My eldest sister (in her 80s) just emailed
me to say how, as a girl, she had asked our Dad about
his WW1 days, but he refused to say. The idea that it is
better that those with no chance of fully grasping what
occurred are better advised to offer more practical help
is commonly shared - a view that the poet John Pudney
included in his famous WW2 poem "For Johnny" -
"Better by far for Johnny the bright star,
To keep your head and see his children fed."
As the late great British classical composer George Lloyd
observed about the final movement of his seminal 4th
Symphony (the "Arctic"), the last movement of which
was like a series of march tunes after the reflective
preceding movements, it suggested the way we step out
on the life-affirming way home after a funeral. And the
composer, with his own shocking suffering on Arctic Convoy service, knew all about that process.
We seek to embellish the suffering with words that are
intended to put a value on it and ensure its remembrance
rather than to encourage its repetition - at least, I continue to hope that is so.

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Wolfgar Miere

Mon 12th Nov 2018 15:01

This is an interesting article Patrick reinforcing what is now available information of historic and medical fact.

I would propose though that there is yet another dimension to the damages visited upon those who endure and survive conflict in its many manifistations, it is not a new dimension but it seems one which is also ignored and not spoken of.

It is the disconnection of young men and women with the societies they return to after war, a feeling of isolation which probably does not amount to a mental health issue but surely manifests itself in anger and resentment of the seemingly privilaged and entitled who have no understanding of conflict and often no interest in it whatsoever. I myself feel this, and I would think it is fairly obvious to anyone who is blessed with empathy or even compassion and who has read my scribbles or listened to any of my unfortunate rants. Yet, never once have I been approached by anyone on WoL regarding my mental well being, (I have though been ridiculed, insulted and doubted to the point of wishing to harm myself, and having to pester the moderators on this site to take action...which they eventually did when they woke up) Now I should explain I do not want sympathy or any thanks whatsoever for my service, it was my choice...tuff shit as far as I'm concerned.

However, none of those who profess concern for our fighting men have stepped up enquiring after me in my rage. Compare this to my experience with former collegues who quickly recognise the warning signs of isolation and self harming, whether it be with obvious physical harm or self medicating with booze, these men and women quickly step up and catch each other...I have done so many times for my collegues and have also been the recipient of such charity.

It seems to me that many civilians just see ex squaddies who rant as troublesome contrary beings who are better off ignored, after all it is much simpler. A fine example of Kiplings "Tommy this and Tommy that" line.

My observation is that they need some understanding as any confused damaged person might, but it is not often forthcoming. This may lead to and often does end in further withdrawral from (normal) society and isolation, resulting all too often with serious mental health issues.

People claim they care, they write endless poetry about soldiers sacrifice and bloody poppy fields, when actually to help the living might be more productive and certainly would be welcome. Of course there is nothing to say that all cannot and should not be helped, without excluding or forgetting anyone.

Yesterday I posted a message to all my former collegues wishing them luck and good fortune in the coming year. I told them they are my brothers and sisters and are not alone, and often we are all we have when times get tuff. I told them to reach out to me and each other over the coming months as many of us in the last 12 months have taken the easy way out of misery.

These few weeks after remembrance are particularly tuff for some veterans as the camaraderie is again over for another year. Whilst most civilians will now be putting these thoughts behind them, lonliness and isolation will be returning for many.

For some every day is remembrance day.

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keith jeffries

Mon 12th Nov 2018 11:06

Patrick,

Thank you for a splendid article. You have eloquently dealt with a difficult subject which Owen also addressed with candour.

Keith

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