Although the poems “Recalling War” by Robert Graves and “MentalCases” by Wilfred Owen are both concerned with the damage that war does tothe soldiers involved, they are different in almost every other respect. Owen’spoem examines the physical and mental effects of war in a very personal anddirect way – his voice is very much in evidence in this poem – he has clearlyseen people like the ‘mental cases’ who are described. It is also evident thatOwen’s own experiences of the war are described: he challenges the reader withterrifying images, in order that the reader can begin to comprehend the causesof the madness. Graves on the other hand is far more detached.
His argument isdistant, using ancient images to explore the immediate and long-term effects ofwar on the soldier. The poem is a meditation on the title, Graves examining thedeveloping experiences and memories of war with a progression of images andmetaphors. “Mental Cases” is a forceful poem, containing threesubstantial stanzas which focus on different aspects of Owen’s subject. Thefirst stanza is a detailed description of what the ‘mental cases’ look like. Their outward appearance is gruesome, “Baring teeth that leer likeskulls'”, preparing the reader for the even more horrifying second stanza. The second verse concentrates on the men’s past experiences, the deaths theyhave witnessed and the unimaginable nightmares they have lived through:”Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
” The last stanza concludesthe poem, explaining how the men’s lives are haunted by their experiences, theygo mad because the past filters into every aspect of their present lives, themen retreat away from the memories and into madness. The form of Owen’s poem is,therefore, built around three main points: the appearance of the men, theirexperiences, and the effect this has on their lives. In Graves’ poem the form isalso key to understanding the poem, but perhaps in a less obvious way. “Recalling War” has five stanzas, in a form that corresponds to thepsychological emotions and physical experience war provokes. The first stanzadescribes how Graves expects the war to be remembered twenty years after theevent: the wounds have healed and the blind and handicapped men forget theinjuries the war caused, as their memories are blurred by the distance of time;”The one-legged man forgets his leg of wood”. In the second stanzaGraves moves on to question the nature of war.
This verse is a description ofthe atmosphere and setting of war. “Even when the season was the airiestMay/ Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out”. The third stanzafocuses on the battle itself, and the fourth explores the aftermath of battleand the unbearable nature of the war. The fifth and final stanza returns to theideas expressed in the first stanza, of war being an unreal memory. The form ofthis poem is crucial to its understanding. The progressions marked by thestanzas highlights the argument Graves is making.
“Mental Cases” and”Recalling War” are both poems that rely on the atmosphere and tonethey create, indeed this is a key source of their power. Owen creates aterrifying atmosphere throughout the poem, which is clearly a reflection of hissubject matter. Not only does Owen describe in awful detail the shockingappearance of the men, he also includes horrific images of war. The tone is verypowerful, with Owen asking questions in the first stanza, “but who arethese hellish?”, a device which cleverly establishes direct contact withthe reader and an engaging discourse. This connection with the reader isexploited in the second verse, in which the reader experiences the full force ofOwen’s imagery. The final stanza opens with a tone that is factual: “-Thustheir hands are plucking at each other”, summarizing the fact that thesemen behave the way they do because of the events they have and are experiencing.
Owen ends the poem by insisting on the complicity of both himself and the readerin the fate of these men, an accusation which, after the powerful prelude, ishard to deny. Whereas Owen’s poem is powerful as a result of its consistentlyhorrific atmosphere and tone, Graves’ poem changes tone from stanza to stanza,emulating the different stages of feeling a soldier experiences. The poem openswith a tone that is factual yet distant, as though an old tale were being told”As when the morning traveller turns and views/His wild night-stumblingcarved into a hill”. This tone emphasizes Graves’ description of dimlyremembered suffering which is fading into the distance: “Entrance and exitwounds are silvered clean”. The second stanza moves into a different tone,war is described as not only a war between countries, but a universal disaster”No mere discord of flags/ But an infection of the common sky”.
Thetone and atmosphere created are ominous, there is a feeling of anticipation andfear reminding the reader of soldiers waiting for battle: oppressed, thrust outBoastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard. Natural infirmities were out ofmode, For Death was young again The third stanza does not immediately changetone, however the feeling of fear increases as Graves dwells on thoughts ofpremature death and little on “valiant yard”. However, roughly halfway through the stanza the tone does change dramatically. The poem becomes notfearful but simple and clear, the necessities of life are described and the tonereminds the reader of an adrenaline filled soldier, thrilled with the battle andinstinct of survival, “A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call. “. However, by the next stanza the battle is over and the experience of war assumesa hopeless guise.
Everything good in the world has turned to ashes”Extinction of each happy art and faith” and the duty to fight turnsinto “the duty to run mad. ” The tone of the poem is tragic, havingseen hope turn to fear, exhilaration and finally collapse. The powerful climaxof the poem in the fourth stanza is further emphasized in the last verse, as thetone returns to one of unreal memory. The poet’s voice is ironic with child-likenaivet?: Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill.
The last lines of the poemchange in tone again as the poet describes a future of despair if the pastcannot be remembered with accuracy and acceptance: When learnedly the future wedevote To yet more boastful visions of despair. Both poets use a verydescriptive and revealing choice of vocabulary. One particular feature of Owen’spoem is the use of alliteration to emphasize the image he is trying to create:Memory fingers in their hair of murders, Multitudinous murders The repetition ofthe ‘m’ sound serves to increase the impact of the image, reminding the readerof a stammering, shell-shocked soldier. “Thus their heads wear thishilarious, hideous” is another example of alliteration. Owen’s choice ofwords such as “slob”, “baring”, “swelters”,”hideous” and “flesh” all help to increase the reader’shorror as theses words describe so well the nightmares the men are experiencing.
Graves’ words also have a strong impact on the reader: his words highlight thedifferences between the stanzas. The second stanza describing the wait for thebattle uses words like “sagged”, “ominously”,”oppressed”, “clenched” and “pressed”. In contrastto this the last stanza includes words such as “piecrust”,”nibbling”, “rattle” and “dandelions”, emphasizingthe child-like memories of war. The contrast between the third and fourthstanzas are even more noticeable.
The second half of the third stanza aims tohighlight the simple and uncomplicated feelings the soldiers experience whilethey are in combat, this is reflected by words like “roof”,”call”, “wine”, “rage” and “lack” ,these are all monosyllabic words stressing Graves? point. In the fourth stanzaGraves’ vocabulary changes and becomes more complex: “foundering””sublimities”, “protesting”, “Extinction”,”unendurable”, again these are words which reflect the fact that thesoldiers are now questioning and trying to solve a problem or paradox. Thecontrasts in the two poets vocabulary is intriguing. Owen’s vocabulary is farmore raw and hard hitting, thought about but not agonized over. Graves’ choiceof vocabulary reflects the fact that he is making a more complex series ofpoints; the words are perhaps rather contrived.
The images in “MentalCases” by Owen are perhaps the most shocking aspect of the poem. There arethree central images within Owen’s poem, contained within the three stanzas. Thefirst images are those which describe the ‘mental cases’. Owen uses simile andmetaphor. “from jaws that slob their relish”, the men are describedlike animals, drooling with “Drooping tongues”.
These images implythat the experience of war for these men has taken away their humanity. Owenthen describes the men as having “teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth”. This simile not only creates a clear picture in the mind of the reader, it alsoserves to show how these ‘mental cases’ are not lucky to be alive, in fact, theysuffer more than their dead comrades: not only do they look like death andbehave like animals, they also continue to suffer the miseries of the livingworld, that of memory, nightmares and madness: “What slow panic/Gougedthese chasms round their fretted sockets?”. This image is continued to theend of the stanza as Owen claims that seeing these mad men would make anyonethink they were in hell because of the ghastly picture they create.
This againstrengthens Owen’s argument that, although these men survived the war alive, thescars they suffer are worse than any death we can imagine. Within the secondstanza Owen progresses to create images of the living hell which the mentalcases experienced and are now reliving. This is the climax of the poem as lineupon line brings new horrors. The first line of the stanza shows more explicitlythe idea that the men are suffering perhaps more than even the dead men:”There are men whose minds the Dead have ravaged”. This explores thefeeling that the mad men owe their lives in someway to the death of theircomrades.
The image of their fellow soldiers who are now dead haunts them, thisis a parallel with the sentiments Owen develops at the end of the poem, that thereader and poet are somehow to blame for the madness of the ‘mental cases’, inthe same way that the mad men feel guilt about the men killed. Owen uses imageryin the poem in such away that the reader is actually haunted by the images ofthe mad men, and we are also left with a strong sense of guilt at theirsacrifice for our life and sanity. The images continue to horrify throughout therest of the stanza. One of the most shocking images is that of the mad menwalking on the corpses of dead men “Wading sloughs of flesh these helplesswander” an image which is disturbing not only because of the image itcreates, but also the idea that these suffering men reached the position theyare in because of the deaths of thousands of others, “Treading blood fromlungs that had loved laughter”.
This is a terribly shocking image mainlybecause Owen has chosen to give one of the few references to emotion in the poemto a decapitated corpse on which the mad men walk. The choice to put”loving laughter” next to “blood from lungs” is such a starkcontrast that the horror of what Owen is describing cannot sink in on the firsttime of reading, it is further emphasized by the use of alliteration whichstresses the link between the words; It is an image too terrible to comprehendso it serves its purpose, the reader is disgusted and revolted by what isdescribed. The second stanza ends with a very powerful image “Carnageincomparable, and human squander/Rucked too thick for these men’sextrication. ” This is a continuation of images earlier in the stanza,however the men are no longer walking on the bodies of dead men, they are beingdrawn under by them, unable to escape from the thousands of bodies of men whosedying was unnecessary. This image emphasizes Owen’s belief that not only did warresult in millions of wasteful deaths, but the men who survived are also lostbecause the memories of the horror and “carnage” they experiencedmeans these men can never return to sanity. The closing verse of the poemconcludes that these memories are understandably too horrid for the ‘mentalcases’ to face, however life and the living only serve to remind them of thedead: “Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black” .
HereOwen links the images of two natural things, sunlight and night with blood, alsoa natural element. However when placed together and within the context of theprevious stanza, the natural become unnatural and disturbing. The reader is ableto identify with the suffering man because we too are repulsed by the idea ofdawn breaking “open like the wound that bleeds afresh”. This is animage which suggests the inability for the wounds to heal, and even the dawn, animage associated with re-birth is just a re-opening of wounds, a stark contrastwith the wounds “silvered clean” in Graves’ poem. The close of thestanza refers back to the beginning of the poem, as the mad men are describedagain as being like dead men: “Awful falseness of set-smilingcorpses”.
The last lines describe the images of the ‘mental cases’ tryingto touch the living and sane, the poet and the reader, who knock them back withhorror, even though Owen claims it is us “who dealt the war andmadness” Graves’ imagery, unlike Owen is subtle, not as shocking anddirect, but considered carefully it is as effective and complex. The poem openswith a powerful image “Entrance and exit wounds silvered clean” thisrelies on the clever juxtaposition of the words “exit wounds” with”silvered clean”. The reader is taken by surprise as they are unusualwords to find together, the poet, the reader realizes, is describing the newskin of a scar left by an old wound. The first stanza is full of images of thehealed or forgotten scars of the world war, and the poet explains why: Their warwas fought these twenty years ago And now assumes the nature-look of time, Aswhen the morning traveller turns and views His wild night-stumblings carved intoa hill.
This image subtly argues how the distance of time does not alwaysclarify, objectify and make accurate past events, in fact time blurs the detailsand obscures the negative memories. This directly contrasts with Owen’s view. Owen maintains in his poem, that the mad men can and will never be able toforget the events they experienced in the war. Their scars will not become”silvered clean”, but remain unbearably painful. Graves’ poem beginsto examine the war that the men experienced throughout the second verse.
Thestanza examines the build up and anticipation of battle, using a tone that is amixture of fear and anticipation. Graves uses pathetic fallacy, the weatherreflects the feelings of pressure and suppression that the soldiers experience”the common sky/That sagged ominously upon the earth”. This also givesthe impression that the soldiers do have to face not only the full might of theGerman army, but the strength of the elements too: “Down pressed thesky”. Graves then goes on to contrast the natural elements to the unnaturaldeath of the young men: “Natural infirmities were out of mode, For Deathwas young again: Patron alone Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.
This imageis particularly effective as it personifies death, a device which brings deathcloser: the reader feels that death is approaching the waiting soldiers. Theenemy is no longer a distant storm, but an encroaching “Patron”looking for his prey. This last line is also emotive of a dying person. Thecommas and hyphen give the line a jerky feel, like a spasm of death.
The poetthen moves into the battle itself as the third stanza begins. This verse isparticularly interesting as it is full of images of “antiqueness ofromance”, images reminiscent of ancient tales of fighting men, concernedonly with “wine, meat, log-fires, a roof over the head”, an ancientchivalry and heroism. The men become purely physical beings, as your body issurely the primary concern on the battlefield and “Our youth became allflesh and waived the mind. “.
The image conjures up pictures of youngsoldiers experiencing the adrenaline of danger, an emotion which leaves littletime to worry about the massacre which surrounds them, only swearing when”in lack of meat, wine, fire,/In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning. “The simple words Graves uses reflects the simple necessities and animal-likeinstincts the soldiers experience. The fourth stanza is the climax of the poem,the battle is over and the images are no longer simple and straight forward. Graves answers his question “What, then, was war?” with “War wasfoundering of sublimities, Extinction of each happy art and faith”.
War hasdestroyed everything noble and impressive, everything that made life livable. After the physical exertion of the battle, Graves now presents the grimaftermath, where the mind begins to process the events it has just experienced. Graves presents an image of a fragile sanity which attempts to understand thewar “Protesting logic or protesting love,”. The stanza ends with theimage of a soldier finally breaking down under the weight of the immediatememories and his inability to reason the horrors he has witnessed: Until theunendurable moment struck- The inward scream, the duty to run mad. The lastverse of Graves’ poem returns to the ideas explored in the first stanza.
Thepoet’s voice is ironic as he uses images from childhood to describe theterrifying war he displayed the previous verses. “And we recall the merryways of guns-“, the images make war sound child-like and unreal, the word”recall” reminds the reader of the poem’s title “RecallingWar”. It has the effect of almost silently posing the question, ‘is thishow war should be recalled?’ The answer is of course evident having read theprevious stanzas, and the final lines of the poem just serve to confirm thereader’s conclusions: When learnedly the future we devote To yet more boastfulvisions of despair This is a warning from Graves. He argues that our future willbe filled with the “despair” that his generation experienced if thehorror and brutalities are not remembered.
Graves has used a wide variety ofimagery to create a complete picture of various stages that the soldierexperiences while at war, a powerful sequence of emotions that illustrate notonly the damage war does and the painful memories it creates, but the damagewhich can be done if these memories are forgotten or blurred. This contrastsdirectly with Owen’s poem that seeks to describe the damage done by war when itis not forgotten. Both poets discuss the scars that war leaves, both physicallyand mentally. Graves’ poem is very much a detached reflection on war, focusingon before, during and after effects of a battle in order to argue the point thatwar should not be forgotten.
The immediate effect of war is very powerfullydescribed, but the long term scars are claimed to be forgettable and”silvered clean”, a strong contrast with Owen’s view. Owen’s poemportrays the very personal effects war has, he describes people whom he has met. Indeed as a poet who spent some of the war in a mental institution for soldierscalled Craiglockhart, it is amazing that he is as detached as he is, consideringhe could well have been described as a ‘mental case’ himself, as he sufferedfrom shell shock and nightmares. .
Owen’s portrayal is gruesome and shocking,finally concluding by laying the responsibility for the madness at the feet ofthe reader and poet. This poem, not only demonstrates Owen’s view of the scarswar leaves on people, it also serves as a useful insight into the way in whichOwen was scarred by war. He clearly feels guilty at his survival, and he too ishaunted by the images of the dead that he describes, how else could they be sovivid? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect revealed by Owen’s poem, thescars left by war on a real human with the ability to express and communicatethe damage in such a way that the reader is not only shocked, but greatly moved. The poem has its intensity because Owen was writing it while in direct contactwith the ‘mental cases’ whereas Graves is more distant as well as describing thememories of war. A poem which describes an inability to remember is far lessdisturbing than a poem which describes not being able to forget.