Wilfred Owen and the Poetry of Trauma
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.