One became conscious that the place was full of men whose slumbers were morbid and terrifying - men muttering uneasily or suddenly crying out in their sleep. Around me was that underworld of dreams haunted by submerged memories of warfare and its intolerable shocks……. Each man was back in his doomed sector of a horror-stricken front line, where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead.
Thus Siegfried Sassoon remembers the scene in Craiglockhart where he and Wilfred Owen were patients in late summer 1917. When months later Owen was drafting MENTAL CASES he would have recalled Sassoon's poem on the same theme, THE SURVIVORS, in addition to his own 1916 fragment PURGATORIAL PASSIONS.
Owen wrote from Ripon on 25th May 1918, "I've been busy this evening with my terrific poem (at present) called THE DERANGED". Two months later at Scarborough it was revised and retitled. Owen having himself been a Mental Case, it will have been a painful poem to write.
That damage to men's minds, through war, was not more shameful than bodily wounds didn't always find ready acceptance at that time, and MENTAL CASES is both a powerful poem and a propaganda document. Owen's aim is to shock, to describe in stark detail the ghastly physical symptoms of mental torment. As in DULCE ET DECORUM EST and THE SENTRY, Owen shows men in their prime become senile wrecks.
Their abnormal condition he links to abnormality in nature.
………..on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear, night comes blood-back;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
a device he was to use later in SPRING OFFENSIVE when the troops find that "the whole sky burned with fury against them".
Again as in that poem, if nature, then super-nature also has its role to play in our greater understanding. These men are "purgatorial shadows", (2), theirs a "twilight" world (1), neither day nor night, neither alive nor dead.…