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“Mental Cases” and “Disabled”

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Both “Mental Cases” and “Disabled” are anti-war poems evoking vivid and sometimes shocking emotions. Owen shows a less pleasant side to “The Great War” in his typical fashion. “Disabled” paints a vivid picture of a young man’s misfortune and shows the contrast between his old life – full of hope – and his new life, in which he has no hope. “Mental Cases”, on the other hand, outlines the mental effects of the war, with strikingly vivid images.

“Disabled” begins with a description of a man in a wheel-chair. He is described as wearing a “ghastly suit of grey” which is “Legless, sewn short at the elbow”. This bluntly makes apparent the fact that this man has lost his legs and parts of his arms. He hears the “Voices of play and pleasure” but he is far removed from them. He has no pleasure, now.

On lines 11 and 12 Owen describes how the man used to experience girls – “how slim // Girl’s waists are or how warm their subtle hands”. That was, however, “before he threw away his knees.” This is another blunt remark – a little detached and objective but straight to the point. Now, girls “touch him like some queer disease.” He is now no longer an attractive young man but he seems almost like a repulsive old man. While last year he appeared “younger than his youth”, “Now he is old”. The irony in him now being the disgust of girls now is that he actually went to war to impress the women – “to please his Meg”.

“Someone said he’d look a god in kilts”

Now he looks like anything but a god.

The vivid image of the man being horribly wounded in the trenches is conjured by the metaphor of how he “lost his colour”:

“Poured it down shell holes till the veins ran dry”

His bleeding is described as a “leap of purple” which “spurted from his thigh”. Both these images of heavy bleeding are very powerful, as are the emotions stirred in the reader.

By contrast, the man use to think that blood on your leg was manly when it was gained as a consequence of actions for ones side. However, now he has no legs to have “a blood-smear” on, thanks to his contribution. “[H]e liked a blood-smear down his leg” “after football” – but that was only a game. Now, he has discovered that injuries can be much more serious when sustained in what one might call: The Ultimate Game. He underestimated the opposition – “Germans he scarcely thought of” – and has paid the price. Before, he had “no fear // Of Fear” – he though not of death or danger. He though only about the spirit of fellow men – “Esprit de corps” – about the uniform (“daggers in plaid socks”) and about the “drums and cheers” as he marched of to war.

The only one who “cheered him home”, on the other hand, was “a solemn man who brought him fruits”. He was not welcomed back as a hero but “not as crowds cheer Goal”. This is another reference to sport and to how different war is. Only the man with the fruits, who we may assume to be a vicar or similar holy man, actually thanked him for his sacrifice. Of course he did not go to make a sacrifice for his country. He went “to impress the giddy jilts”. Even the vicar “enquired about this soul”.

Whereas “Disabled” concerns physical disability sustained during the war, “Mental Cases” is about the mental damage sustained. The latter is perhaps more striking – in language and in depiction – and many literary techniques are employed.

We are, in effect, introduced to these “purgatorial shadows” by Owen. They have “skull’s teeth wicked”, “fretted sockets” and “jaws that slob their relish”. This striking use of language evokes horror in the reader. It seems like a nightmare or like hell itself, “Surely we have perished // Sleeping, and walk hell”.

The “hellish” men are “men whose minds the Dead have ravished”. This statement suggests that their minds have been devastated by the Dead (ravaged); or perhaps it is ironic (they were ravished – pleased). It is a strong, almost brutal-sounding word with hard sounds. Such onomatopoeias appear frequently in the poem.

The word “slough”, used on the 13th line of the poem has various interpretations. It may merely mean: ‘a swamp’ – “wading sloughs of flesh”. However, the word “slough” can also mean ‘a mass of dead flesh’. Furthermore, “slough” can mean ‘a state of hopeless despondency’. However it is interpreted it creates a very powerful image.

On the next line Owen makes a contrast between past and future – something that he did in “Disabled” very effectively. He used a repetition of the soft letter ‘l’ at the beginning of “loved” and “laughter” to contrast with the vivid image, “Treading blood from lungs”. Then, on line 16, Owen uses the words “Batter” and “shatter” – both of which have the same hard, sharp sound of gunfire itself, one might observe. Alliteration is used on the 17th and 18th lines with more harsh consonants, “Carnage incomparable” and:

“Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.”

This ‘k’ sound is very effective, perhaps because it brings to mind the word ‘kill’.

The descriptions of the expressions on the faces of the hellish men are most powerful and evocative. They are said to “wear this hilarious, hideous, // Awful falseness of set smiling corpses”. This is ironic in one respect – they smile not for pleasure. Moreover, the image of grinning skulls is evoked and this is most powerful.

The final two lines make one feel responsible for causing such torment. They are,

“Snatching after us who smote them, brother,

Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.”

One may feel a certain amount of guilt at allowing such suffering to take place or for encouraging or dealing it. The word “brother” includes mankind and suggests that we are all responsible. It certainly stirs many ant-war feelings.

Both “Disabled” and “Mental Cases” evoke strong emotions from the reader. One can empathise with the mentally damaged men in the second poem and with the physically disabled man in former, although to a lesser extent. One is made more aware of the effects of war by both poems and becomes less complacent. Owen has achieved his aim in raising ones awareness of the negative effects of war in a very powerful and evocative manner.

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