Mental Cases

Owen, Wilfred

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Donley, Carol
  • Date of entry: Mar-26-1998


The narrator in this three stanza poem observes men in a mental hospital who suffer from what at the time (World War I) was called shell shock and now might be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder. In any case, they are insane; they relive the "batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles."

For these tortured souls, "sunlight seems a bloodsmear" and "dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh." They cannot escape their hideous memories of the warfare. The narrator sees them as living in hell, and he accepts for all society the blame for what has happened to them--we, he says, have "dealt them war and madness."


Wilfred Owen is recognized as the master poet of the First World War. Writing from first hand experiences, both in combat and in a hospital recovering from battle fatigue, Owen gave us image after image of how horrible this war was -- how the idealized notions of heroism and manly valor meant next to nothing when one was trying to survive gas attacks and bombs dropped from planes. Owen was killed a week before the armistice.

In this poem he opens with a series of questions about who these mental cases are, why they rock back and forth in some kind of purgatory, why they are so tortured with panic and misery. In the second stanza, he answers the opening questions: these are the men whose minds have been ruined by their war experiences, for whom the grotesque carnage of the war was "rucked too thick for these men's extrication."

In the final stanza, he explains why these men are so tortured by their memories. And, typical of Owen, he points out that everyone who supported the war contributed to the madness of these mental cases.

Primary Source

The Poems of Wilfred Owen


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York




Jon Stallworthy