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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds'In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.' Welcome to week four of Literature and Mental Health, Reading for Wellbeing. This week, we're going to look at a very specific condition, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder known for short as PTSD, but originally known as shellshock. Those two lines I just read are from a famous poem by Wilfred Owen, the great First World War poet. So many of Owen's poems are about capturing memories that he would rather forget, those of the horrendous things that he saw and experienced in the trenches on the Western front in the Great War.

Skip to 1 minute and 3 secondsThe lines are from the poem, 'Dulce et Decorum Est,' and they're describing his memory of a fellow soldier under a gas attack. Unwanted memories are a symptom of PTSD, and it seems to me this is precisely what Owen is trying to come to terms with using the medium of poetry. I think it's true of all the First World War poets, isn't it? That again and again, the images in their poems are images they would rather forget, but simply can't forget. And it's extraordinary reading around on the subject of shellshock, of how the poets really do illuminate the condition. There's other material that's extraordinarily evocative as well early filmed material of soldiers suffering from shellshock.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 secondsAnd of course, although the condition was only diagnosed formally at the time of the First World War, war has been with us throughout history. And war and its appalling effects on human psychology have been something that writers have been exploring ever since the beginning of Western literature. Homer's Iliad, the foundation text of Western literature, is a war poem. And there are moments there where one can see the trauma, the shellshock, of those who have gone through the wars. Even today, soldiers suffer from shellshock. And often, writing about the experience is something that can help them. Shakespeare too, of course, writes many plays about war and other forms of traumatic witnessing.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 secondsAnd it's one of his plays, and a particular passage in that play, his extraordinarily violent play, Titus Andronicus, that is the springboard into what we'll be looking at in the latter part of this week's work. Indeed, Titus Andronicus was a key text for one of our contemporary poets, who will be talking to us about his trauma when he had to witness the violent rape of his girlfriend, and wrote a very powerful poem called 'For Lavinia.' Jonathan, you'll know that I'm very keen to explore the female experience of trauma and to explore the notion that PTSD-- shellshock, soldiers. Actually, let's move it on from that. Let's take it to miscarriage to rape to other kinds of trauma, car accidents.

Skip to 3 minutes and 36 secondsIt can be all sorts of things. I'm very keen to widen the notion of PTSD and some of our poets, and our contemporary poets, who we'll be talking to, will be helping us to explore trauma for a contemporary audience. Absolutely. So we begin with shellshock and the extraordinary story of Craiglockhart Hospital, where the poets Owen and Sassoon met. But in the course of the films this week, we'll see it's a much bigger issue than that.

Welcome to Week 4: Trauma

In this week of the course we’ll be looking at trauma, and at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe and debilitating condition which can affect people in the aftermath of distressing or life-threatening events.

The modern understanding of PTSD began during the First World War, when it was referred to as ‘Shell Shock’. Doctors working at hospitals like Craiglockhart were shocked by the symptoms of traumatised returning soldiers. Many of these soldiers had been injured not just physically, but also mentally by the dangers they had endured and the horrors they had witnessed. This trauma manifested itself in very pronounced physical symptoms such as shaking and difficulty walking, as well as in the flashbacks we now commonly associate with PTSD. It is with a description of one of these flashbacks that we begin our week, taken from Wilfred Owen’s famous war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Wilfred Owen: The War Poems, ed. John Stallworthy, (Chatto & Windus, 1994)

As well as exploring shell shock through the poetry of the First World War, we want to use this week to expand and update our understanding of trauma. PTSD is a condition which can be triggered by any dangerous, distressing or life-threatening event, and it is something which many people – soldiers, victims of assault, people involved in car accidents, women who experience miscarriage – struggle with today. Together, we’ll look at a variety of texts that explore trauma and PTSD, and think about how writing about a trauma can offer a form of therapy.


Throughout the course we will be addressing some sensitive and potentially upsetting topics. We encourage all of you to exercise your own judgement, and to skip any material that you think may be distressing rather than helpful for you. Please also remember to be considerate of your fellow learners in the discussion areas, both when commenting and when responding to comments made by others.

If you are experiencing any of the conditions that we discuss during the course, or if you feel that you are in need of help, you should speak to a medical practitioner or counsellor, who will be able to offer professional support. You can also seek help from charities and care organisations such as the Samaritans. We’ve included a link to their website at the bottom of the page.


This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: