Notes on Owen's Poems from the Set Anthology




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Maundy Thursday

One result of Wilfred Owen's two years as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden was his loss of taste for evangelical religion. Yet later, surprisingly, at Bordeaux where he went to teach English in a languages school, he showed that his religious sense had not entirely deserted him. He got on well with the English Pastor there, he attended prayers and Bible classes at the Union Chretienne; he also sought out a Reformed church and the Protestant Temple.

Family influences still had power to draw him back, just as in an opposite direction they tended to confirm him in certain prejudices. One such prejudice was against Roman Catholicism.

It's hard today to imagine the intemperate utterances employed at the turn of the century by Protestants against Catholics and vice versa, in newspapers, sermons and lecture halls. In such an atmosphere was Wilfred Owen brought up. And although his views on religion certainly changed as he grew older there's no evidence that his opinion of Catholicism did so.

In France he attended five R.C. services. On the first occasion - Midnight Mass Christmas 1913 - it was the sniggering of his friends and an uncomfortable draught, not the ritual, that irritated him. But the following Easter he was deploring the non-observance of Good Friday; then at a funeral service in the May he declared himself almost seduced by Catholicism but added that 'the illusion soon passed.' High Mass at Christmas 1914 brought the comment, 'It would take a power of candlegrease and embroidery to romanize me.' Finally at Easter 1915 he went twice: High Mass on the Sunday when he called candle, book and bell 'all like abominations of desolation', and the service of Veneration of the Cross which in the Letters he wrongly attributes to Good Friday. 'Always I come out from these performances an hour and a half older: otherwise unchanged,' he wrote.

MAUNDY THURSDAY is a sonnet of undivided lines in regular iambic pentameter, and it focuses on, first, the different approaches of the congregation to the act of veneration and, second, Owen's momentary and memorable encounter with a 'server- lad' an acolyte with brown hands.

For the men, veneration is a gesture rather than a statement of faith. They are there from habit not conviction. What they kiss is an 'emblem' and less than real. They are 'lugubrious but not sad', their emotion inward not outward looking.

On the other hand for the women it is the Real Presence they worship. Their faith is genuine but their mouths are 'meek', and submission to Church dogma does not recommend itself to the sceptical and independent minded Wilfred Owen.

As for the children, too young to understand yet with imaginations at the alert (kissing a silver doll) their unawareness of the deeper response is soon overtaken by Owen's utter rejection of it.

So does he indirectly deny two thousand years of Catholic doctrine and affirm the precedence of the real over the Real presence. It is bold and shocking the way that he goes through the right motions - kneeling, bending his head, the kiss - all for the wrong reasons.

The Christ was thin and cold, and very dead (line 12)

strikes an immediate chill, while the final line does rather the opposite:

I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.

A startling antithesis in a startling poem that has Wilfred Owen beginning at the altar rails and ending, as some might think, in the Confessional.


Mental Cases

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. It is hell they suffer. "Who these hellish?" (9) demands Owen as he gazes around him. Tormented, "their eyeballs shrink" (19). Always "they must see these things and hear them" (15). They exist in an abyss from which there seems no ascent.

The close-up realism finds Owen part of the scene, the "wading sloughs of flesh" (13) recalling the corpses and waist-high slush he describes in THE SENTRY, the shrinking tormented eyes reminding him of the sentry's eyeballs "huge-bulged like squids". In DULCE ET DECORUM EST the dying man plunges desperately at Owen, while here Owen watches other men's frenzied gesticulations, hands plucking, picking and even worse.

Snatching after us who smote them, brother,

Pawing us who dealt them war and madness. (27-8)

And so the poet acknowledges his share of that guilt which lies at the poem's core, symbolised in blood imagery: blood trodden from the lungs (14), blood shed in "carnage incomparable" (17), the "blood-smear" of sunlight (21), the "blood-back" of night (21), blood that seeps " a wound that bleeds afresh" (22).

We can tell this by the way he confronts the situation head-on, not describing it objectively but by putting himself in the role of visitor to this hospital ward where the men sit in twilight. He forces himself to see again what he has seen before, "men whose minds the dead have ravished", how their jaws "slob their relish", how fretted are their eye sockets.

"Who are these?" he asks. "Why sit they here? "Wherefore rock they?" he knows why of course as he reveals through the words of an attendant doctor, who at the end reminds Owen - and us - who it was who smote them, who dealt them war and madness.

More mundanely, trochaic metre (stressed-unstressed etc) effects a falling rhythm, depressed and heavy. Apart from an internal "batter" - "shatter" (16) Owen avoids rhymes.

Where there's alliteration - "multitudinous murders" (12), blood-black" (21), "hilarious, hideous" (23) the evil seems to inflate. Where the grammar crumbles as in Memory fingers in their hair of murders (11) the distortion corresponds to minds and bodies wrenched out of shape. Other examples of buckling: noun as adverb - "walk hell" (9) and preposition omitted; adjective as noun - who these hellish? (9) and verb omitted, also "these helpless" (13); verb as noun - "batter" and "shatter" (16) and "human squander" (17).

We sense the terror implicit in "slow panic" (5) - an oxymoron; a state of fear intensified. We shudder at the "chasms round their fretted sockets" (6) - hyperbole. We shrink from

……………this hilarious, hideous

Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses. (23-4) (which contains another oxymoron).

Finally, irony gives language an edge, and the condition of these men, besides inducing pity, is beset with irony; that reason should be lost while memory remains, that falseness attach to a smile or wickedness to a leer when both are voluntary.

Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, (2) we read. Purgatorial shadows. Purgatory. A place of temporary suffering. Well, that fits. But for spiritual purging? For cleansing from sin? Should it be these Mental Cases on whom the shadow of purgatory most justly falls?



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