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Disabled, Mental Cases and Exposure

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Owen’s use of the word ‘pity’ in this quotation immediately reveals his opinion of war. In the dictionary pity is defined as ‘sorrow and compassion aroused by another’s condition’ or ‘something to be regretted’. Owen incorporates both of these definitions into his poetry when describing war. I intend to concentrate on the various devices Owen uses to convey his opinion of War in three of his poems, ‘Disabled’, ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘Exposure’. The titles of two of his poems, ‘Disabled’ and ‘Mental Cases’ tell of the effect that Owen believes the war to have on those who fought in it.

He believes that it has a detrimental, crippling effect on such people and that many lose their sanity because of it. Owen’s poem ‘Mental Cases’ focuses on those people who survive the war but are confined to a mental asylum because of it. He uses words such as ‘misery’, ‘tormented’, ‘hideous’ and ‘madness’ to describe the mental state of these men. Owen’s poems give the distinct impression that the men involved in it are constantly plagued by memories of those that they have killed. Owen writes effectively and truthfully about this because he fought in World War One himself.

In ‘Exposure’ the soldiers imagine the bodies of their comrades impaled upon wire: ‘we hear mad gusts tugging on the wire, Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles’. This shows that their thoughts always return to those who have died in the War. Owen’s use of the word ‘mad’ is an attack on the cruelty and irrationality of War. In ‘Mental Cases’ the survivors are described as ‘purgatorial shadows’. Purgatory was considered to be a place somewhere between heaven and hell, a place of indecision, an eternal hell. These people in the poem are experiencing a living hell.

In fact, later in the poem Owen says that people who walk amongst these tortured souls feel as though they are walking hell. The description of the mental patients as ‘shadows’ indicates that the War has turned them into apparitions who barely brush the boundaries of existence. ‘ – These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished’. This shows that the men are in fact being tortured by the memory of those they have killed in the war. In the quotation the dead people have been personified. This makes them seem more like one body rather than many individual men.

By depriving the dead of their identity the mental cases are able to lessen some of the guilt that they feel, and the extent of the ‘carnage incomparable’ is easier for them to comprehend. Having ended the line preceding it with a question, Owen starts the above line with a hyphen, to give the effect that he is answering the question. In the first paragraph of ‘Mental Cases’ the identity of the men is repeatedly questioned. The above line provides these men with an identity – Owen’s attempt to pay homage to all those who served in the War.

The lack of appreciation for those men involved in the war is something that Owen often incorporates into his poems. For example in ‘Disabled’ the young man is not commended by anyone other than a religious figure who ‘thanked’ him for his efforts in the War. The word ‘thanked’ is printed in italics to convey the man’s (and therefore Owen’s) bitterness at this lack of appreciation. Similarly in ‘Exposure’ it is said that those soldiers lucky enough to return home soon find that their families and friends have moved on without them: ‘on us the doors are closed’.

This shows that Owen believes that the War cuts every man off from the rest of the world. The men have experienced something so terrible that no one else can sympathise with them, including their families. It should be clear to anyone reading Owen’s poems that he associates the War with pain and suffering. In ‘Exposure’ he suggests that the impact of the War is so huge that even nature begins to become cruel. Owen’s association of the unkind weather to the cruelty of the War could be described as pathetic fallacy.

The merciless iced east winds that knive us … ‘ Owen’s use of the word ‘merciless’ is typical of the vocabulary he commonly uses to describe a War that he views as callous and unrelenting. He says that the wind ‘knives’ the soldiers, which is a violent human action, and he later describes it as ‘mad’. Such description is more suited to the description of a living thing and therefore Owen almost personifies the wind. In ‘Disabled’ Owen dwells on the debilitating effect the war has on a young boy.

He is changed from a handsome man for whose face an artist was ‘silly’ into an insecure ‘old’ man who ‘will never feel again how slim girls’ waists are’. The poem focuses on this man’s life before and after the war in order to make the change in his life from good to bad seem more dramatic. The picture that is conjured in the readers’ mind by Owen’s poetry is lacking in colour. The image formed in the reader’s mind are grey – bland and empty, not at all alive or vibrant. They therefore can represent the lives of those involved in the war.

In ‘Disabled’ the man’s life before the war is described using ‘colourful’ words. Trees are ‘light blue’ and his blood is ‘purple’ (the colour purple is considered to be prestigious, and therefore may be an indication that courage coursed through his veins before the war ruined him). After the war, his world becomes dull and grey. He wears a ‘ghastly suit of grey’ (note the use of the word ghastly to represent the horror of the War). In ‘Exposure’ a personification of dawn attacks the ‘ranks on shivering ranks of grey’ men.

This lack of colour is explained in ‘Disabled’, when Owen states: ‘he’s lost his colour very far from here’, Owen explains that war strips the colour and life from all those involved in it. Owen often uses alliteration in his poetry to add effect. For example in ‘Exposure’: ‘Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous’. The repeated ‘s’ sound in this line makes the reader feel that he/she can hear whispering. In ‘Mental Cases’ the line: ‘Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication’ uses a lot of harsh ‘ck’ sounds.

The line is referring to the huge amount of ‘human squander’, and therefore such harsh sounds make the mood increasingly dramatic. Owen’s use of the word ‘squander’ shows that he views the death of so many men in the war as wasteful and pointless. Similarly in ‘Disabled’ the young man says that ‘he threw away his knees’. By using the word ‘threw’ Owen shows that the man acted recklessly, wasting the gifts that he would not appreciate until he was without them. In ‘Exposure’ there are many questions asked that Owen does not answer in the poem.

For example ‘What are we doing here? ‘ and ‘-Is that why we are dying? ‘ The men in the poem are questioning the point of their fighting in the war. The fact that they are so unsure of their existence is pitiful. The rhyming and rhythm in Owen’s poetry is not always regular. Because it is satisfying for people to hear an perfectly rhyming poem with a regular beat, Owen makes sure that his work is not satisfying to the human ear. The almost disjointed manner in which many lines read makes the poems disconcerting, thus the war is less enjoyable to read about.

Owen also achieves this dissatisfaction by varying the structure and length of the passages in his poems. For example in ‘Disabled’ the length of each passage varies greatly. More time is spent reflecting on the young man’s past, which gives the reader the impression that the man is regretful. The paragraphs concerning his present life are relatively brief and to the point, showing the extent to which his life has been cut up by the War. Owen uses para rhyming in ‘Exposure’, keeping the constanents of the rhyming words the same but changing the vowel sound.

This technique is not satisfying to the human ear and therefore ensures that the reader feels troubled about what he/she is reading, i. e. the war. The rhyming and rhythm of ‘Mental Cases’ is more regular. Therefore in order to ensure that his reader does not feel comfortable with what he/she is reading, Owen makes use of stronger, more shocking imagery such as leering skulls and men ‘wading sloughs of blood’. Owen also disrupts the order of the poem to some extent by starting lines with hyphens and punctuating the piece with questions such as ‘but who these hellish? Owen’s message to his readers is that war is horrific.

However the propaganda for the First World War during Owen’s time did not reveal such horrors, therefore many people joined for the wrong reasons. In ‘Disabled’ the young man: ‘thought of jewelled hilts For daggers in plaid socks’. Owen wanted to reveal this to be a misconception of war. To me, Owen’s poems convey a strong sense of regret. In ‘Disabled’ the young man ruins his life simply ‘to please the giddy jilts’. Because of this the man is eventually forced to: ‘take whatever pity they may dole’.

Owen’s use of the word ‘dole’ seems as though the people doling the pity are insincere, and it makes the man sound bitter and resentful. It is possible that the young man in this poem is a figurehead of Owen himself, who spent time in Craiglockhart War Hospital having been severely injured during the war. The above quotation uses the one word that Owen directly associates with war: ‘pity’. In ‘Exposure’ the soldiers constantly ask questions, almost as though they are vulnerable (‘exposed’) and in need of guidance. They are despairing and definitely regretful: ‘We cringe in holes’.

This animal-like action reveals the soldiers’ shame at what they have been reduced to. They do not try to glorify or even justify their actions. They are forced to accept them. In ‘Mental Cases’ there is no regret expressed on behalf of the mental patients until the very end of the poem. Throughout the poem the mental patients are described as ‘purgatorial shadows’ and do not appear to have the state of mind to by conscious of their surroundings. However at they end they are described as: ‘Pawing [those] who dealt them war and madness’. This shows that they resent those people who caused them to end up as ‘mental cases’.

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