Wilfred Owen’s “Mental Cases” is highly descriptive of the pains that the survivors of the First World War have had to endure. The speaker paints a picture of disenchanted men who are suffering the aftermath of their injuries. There is an element of reproach and anger, perhaps even a threat towards the world and its societies. Owen’s diction and structure seem to suggest that there is much more to his poem than sorrow and grief.
The first stanza opens with two questions: “Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?” The questions immediately grab the reader’s attention, with the word ‘twilight’ setting the tone for the stanza and the poem as a whole. The speaker continues questioning, however, using enjambment, asking why they appear the way they do, while at the same time describing the way they look. He uses strong imagery to create a picture of rocking, crippled men with their tongues drooping, and moving back and forth between heaven and hell.
The mention of purgatory serves to describe the soldiers’ uncertainty: even though they have suffered in battle, they have not died and are therefore not given the same right to go to heaven. Yet on the other hand, their condition with “jaws that slob their relish” makes them effectively dead in the real world; they are not functional yet still not sure to go to heaven for the suffering they have endured. The whole stanza serves a message of ‘perished’ soldiers who ‘walk hell’ but are still somehow alive. The stanza ends with another questioning yet again who these ‘hellish’ men are.
The opening line of the second stanza provides an unsatisfactory answer, merely describing the men again. This time, however, he specifies why they are in such a state of depression. Their minds are ravished and they memory replaying the murders and horrors they have seen and saying how at a time these same lungs of theirs used to love laughter as most youths do. Now all they do is remove blood from the lungs. The poet effectively goes through different parts of the human body, relating them to the carnage and torture that have occurred. He describes the hair, fingers, lungs, blood, and muscles concluding in the end of the stanza that all this ‘squander and rucked’ is too harsh for the men to handle, continuing the mood of despair and anguish.
The third stanza continues with the theme of the physical human anatomy and its links with the carnage. The speaker describes how the men’s’ eyeballs have shrunk into their brains, unable to see any sunlight. He compares the sunlight to a mere blood smear which is small and insignificant. This comparison serves two levels: the eyes have become so useless and physically damaged that they cannot even see the sun clearly which is typically the most apparent object in the sky; and the fact that the men are so pessimistic and angry that they can see no light for the future of the world. Owen then goes on to compare the color of the night to a blood-black color, one of a sky that bleeds from the death of the sun.
This can be interpreted on another level: the death of the sun and light can be considered the death of God, or in a sense, God’s support for these men who have suffered but not died. Owen is questioning the earlier poets, such as Rupert Brooke and others, who had said that those who fight and die for their countries will go to heaven. He asking what will happen to those who come so close to death, but do not die; what will happen to them? Will they go to heaven? Will they go to hell? They are effectively dead but have to live through their unbearable pains and at the same time live with the uncertainty of their future after that long awaited death finally does arrive. The next line compares the color of that God abandoned sky to that of dark, black blood.
The blood that was present in the sky as a result of the infinite deaths has dried up to create a black blood clot. This wound is re-opened, however, with every dawn. Strong imagery of the wound depicts a dreadful fault by mankind that could never be rectified; society would forever suffer from the same recurring mistakes over and over. At the same time, this image could mean that the mental wounds of the men themselves are re-opened with every new day: the dark memories of days past still haunts them. They have bleed repeatedly so many times they have become like ‘hideous corpses’ merely plucking at each other. They are plucking and pawing for a reason however: at those who have put them in the position that they are in.
Owen uses the theme of the human anatomy to describe and give life to the carnage that has followed the survivors into their new and secluded lives. Through his word choice, he unveils his message: one that describes an abandoned society, hopeless and regressing. He also leaves a warning to the world in general, and some in specific, by defining the aim of the snatching of those ‘mental cases’ – after those who are responsible for this suffering.