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‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen

'Mental Cases' by Wilfred Owen
15.1
‘Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight? Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish, baring teeth, but leer like skulls’ tongues wicked. Stroke on stroke of pain, but what slow panic gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets? Ever from that hair and through the hand palms misery swelters. Surely we have perished sleeping, and walk hell. But who these hellish?
57.6
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.
105.4
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 dealt them war and madness’.
In this video, we listen to another First World War poem describing the devastation of shell shock, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’.
Warning: This video contains some graphic scenes which some learners may find disturbing.
To accompany the reading, the video also contains some short clips of footage taken at the war hospitals, showing both the symptoms of shell shock and the recovery process. This footage is reproduced with kind permission of the Wellcome Trust.
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’ 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.
Wilfred Owen, 1918
Wilfred Owen: The War Poems, ed. John Stallworthy, (Chatto & Windus, 1994)
Note: there is an error in the reading of the poem, which should read “Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked” instead of “Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked”. We apologise for the error.
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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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