A couple of days ago I saw Not About Heroes– an immensly powerful and profoundly moving piece of theatre written by Stephen MacDonald. The play chronicles the relationship and deep love between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – widely recognised as two of the greatest poetic voices of the First World War.
Owen met Sassoon in 1917 at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where they were both treated for shell shock – what has come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Wilfred Owen was killed in action in France in 1918 –he was only 25 years old. Siegfried Sassoon lived on into old age and was haunted by Owen’s dealth.
“These poems are not about heroes, my subject is war, and the pity of war; these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next …” (Wilfred Owen, 1917)
“Mental Cases” (Wilfred Owen, 1918)
Commenting on the symptoms of shell shock, Smith and Pear (1918) wrote “[Symptoms of shell shock include] loss of memory, insomnia, terrifying dreams, pains, emotional instability, diminution of self-confidence and self-control, attacks of unconsciousness or of changed consciousness sometimes accompanied by convulsive movements resembling those characteristic of epileptic fits, incapacity to understand any but the simplest matters, obsessive thoughts, usually of the gloomiest and most painful kind, even in some cases hallucinations and incipient delusions…[These symptoms] make life for some of their victims a veritable hell” (pp. 12-13) (http://historyofptsd.wordpress.com/world-war-i) [Smith, G. E., & Pear, T. H. (1918). Shell shock and its lessons. Manchester: University Press].
A few months before he was killed in action in 1918, Wilfred Owen wrote “Mental Cases” – a poem that appears to draw heavilly on his own experience of being ‘a mental case’ at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he was treated for shell shock in 1917 (http://www.wilfredowen.org.uk/poetry/mental-cases).
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’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand 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 bloodsmear; 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.
“MENTAL CASES” has been characterised as “both a powerful poem and an [anti-war] propaganda document, where Owen’s aim is to shock, to describe in stark detail the ghastly physical symptoms of mental torment” that the carnage of the trenches inflicted on so many thousands of young men during the First World War (http://www.wilfredowen.org.uk/poetry/mental-cases).
Sadly, the carnage and the ensuing mental torment were to continue in the wars that have followed….