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Explore Owen’s Use of Metaphor in Mental Cases Essay

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Mental Cases, written in 1918 by Wilfred Owen, explores the damage and deterioration of the minds of soldiers as a direct result of the First World War. Owen’s determination to make known the horror of war mentally is evident throughout; his use of facts increases his ability to shock – it is his tactic almost. He describes in absolute detail the horrendous, physical symptoms of mental torment and emphasises that it was not only physical injury that left its mark, but that memories made such an impact that it could reduce men to wrecks.

The use of metaphor; a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, will be explored further throughout Owen’s poem ‘Mental Cases.’

Whilst it is clear almost immediately that Owen intends to shock the reader, it also becomes evident that his aim is at once more refined and more complicated than that simple desire to shock.

It is through his use of metaphor that he achieves this; if he simply intended to alarm the reader he could state in simple terms the psychological effect on these soldiers, but by using metaphor he explores their psyche in a much more visceral, provoking and sensory manner. The reader is taken aback by the words that Owen uses, but the real shock is essentially confirmed through his use of metaphor. The reader feels a deeper sense of just how horrific the situation is for these soldiers.

The use of the words ‘flying muscles’ create images of fragility and gore but the use of ‘shatter’ as a metaphorical description of these muscles has a deeper impact; it is the external imagery that generates the primary shock. But it is through the use of metaphors such as ‘These are men whose minds the dead have ravished’ that we perceive a much stronger sense of their suffering. The idea that the dead can inflict so much agony and fear into the lives of these ‘set-smiling corpses’ is a horrific one. And yet through this one metaphor we can appreciate the pain of their suffering so much more than through the actual, numerous images that scar their minds.

One gets the impression, while reading this poem that ‘these’ men are directly in front us. They lose their individuality and identity but through Owen’s use of direct speech to the reader we feel their presence strongly. Through Owen’s use of intense imagery and metaphors we are able to feel a nuance of what ‘they’ must feel in their unstable, traumatised predicament.

“Sunlight seems a blood – smear; night comes blood black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.”

These connotations of death, injury and loss surround their every waking and sleeping moment. It is not possible for these men to now know any different than the explosion of bombs, the raining of gunfire and the screaming of the dying, the smell of the dead, ‘Always they must see these things and hear them.’ The personification of pain, misery, memory and the dead all add to the sense of personality loss of these men. Misery ‘swelters,’ they are men that the ‘Dead have ravished,’ ‘memory fingers in their hair of murder.’ These men are not their own; they are conflated into mere ‘things’ through the metaphorical personification of abstract nouns. The form of the poem could be seen as a metaphor in conjunction with these men’s loss of identity; there are instances throughout the poem that could be related to anything but war but are then drawn back to the idea of battle.

“Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms / Misery swelters. Surely we have perished/ Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

It is the ambiguity of these ideas that connects with the ambiguity of the men.

Mental Cases could also be seen as an extended metaphor of purgatory. Purgatory, as believed in the Roman Catholic Church, is a state in which the souls who have died in grace must expiate their sins, a place or condition of suffering, expiation or remorse.[1] Perhaps it is Owen’s way of emphasising the injustice of their sufferings; they have done nothing but good for their country and are now being ‘rewarded’ with the same handling of those souls in purgatory. Those souls who have sinned and now, only subsequent to their deaths are learning to be truly good again in order to save themselves from an infinity in Hell. Another argument could be that it creates feelings of liminality – these men are locked in something entirely different to anything we know, another world.

The archaic use of the word ‘wherefore’ provides a certain biblical weight to the moral insinuations of their conditions. These ‘purgatorial shadows’ sit in a metaphorical hellish existence, the tortured gesticulations of their ‘drooping tongues,’ ‘jaws that slob their relish’ and their ‘baring teeth’ create an image of dehumanisation for the reader and through the effective use of metaphor we can relate these images of disability to the shell-shocked men, enabling us to conjure up an easier image, one that we are more accustomed to. The images of the disabled are a part of our daily life whereas those of the shell-shocked have probably been witnessed never by the reader.

Owen’s employment of androgynous characters in the first stanza with the use of ‘these,’ ‘they’ and ‘their’ could be metaphorically symbolic of the Harlequin, first introduced in Dante’s Inferno. The Harlequin, a clown-like figure with hardly recognisable human qualities, is a genderless being who is tormented with a mental incapacity in Dante’s purgatorial ‘land.’ The ‘drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish’ and the Harlequin share those inadequacies of the mind and are linked by a ‘human’ form that is somewhat distorted – the Harlequin through the use of cosmetics, reversible and without them, recognisable, these others by the perpetration of war and trapped with them forever. Dante’s Inferno and Mental Cases do also bear other resemblances through the use of metaphors; in part one of Dante’s Inferno, creative punishments are used to inflict a mental and psychological pain on the protagonist.

It is a pain which is purely vindictive and designed to inflict an emotional agony. This is one of two types of punishment that Dante uses. The first he borrows from forms of medieval torture and is physically agonising to the victims, the second is the punishment for sins committed. The ‘multitudinous murders that they once witnessed’ are the torturous punishments that are bestowed on these ‘purgatorial shadows,’ but it is the punishment for sins committed where the similarities must come to an end. Yes, like Dante, these men appear to be living in a limbo, a purgatorial existence, but because we know nothing of their previous sins, we cannot pass any judgement on whether they deserve to be where they are or not. The use of this metaphor continues to create these feelings of loss and opacity.

Owen’s ability to make his words physical is achieved through the use of metaphor. While some would argue that it is his intense imagery that feeds our imagination, others would say it is his capacity to connect catholic ideas with the torment of these men to create metaphors that allow us to comprehend their situation. While he manages to convey this sense of loss, agony and torment, he does so in a way that screams detachment to an almost harsh level. Throughout the poem, his sympathy is essentially non-existent; it is important to note that he does not sympathise with these men as such but states why they are as they are. We see this ‘tactic’ to shock after his use of the metaphor in the third stanza, lines 3-4;

“Sunlight seems a blood – smear; night comes blood black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.”

This is then justified, almost as if even the poet himself cannot quite comprehend the extremity of their situation; as though he must write it down in its most brutal form in order to understand fully the extent of these men’s perdition. The whole poem, it could be argued, is in this way a metaphor in itself. The poet’s inability to comprehend fully the post-war effects on these men, results in a wording that reflects the mental capacity of the disabled; brutally honest, forthright and with no sparing of emotion. We witness his ‘explanation’ post metaphor;

‘Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.’

It could, however, be argued that Owen is simply using this approach to present to the reader the stigma of shell-shock. Throughout WW1, shell-shock was considered to be a neurological illness and, as a result of the war, something that should be pitied, apologised for and something that should not lead to the social outcast of its victims. This did not, however alter the treatment of these victims. It was easy to pity them from afar but when confronted by them, people would have been uncomfortable, uneasy and awkward. This would arise from the inability to converse with the afflicted, the appearance of their ‘fretted sockets’ and ‘’hideous awful falseness.’ Owen, it must be understood is not like these healthy but distanced people; he embraces the soldiers pain and converts it into a metaphor so vivid, enabling us to understand more their predicament.

In conclusion, Owen’s use of metaphor is used to such a successful extent, that it allows the reader to imagine a type of person inflicted with the horrors of war in a way that would not be possible otherwise. It is, I feel, important to re-iterate the significant difference between imagery and metaphor. Yes, Owen’s use of powerful imagery is used effectively, but it is through his use of unrelenting metaphor that we receive an insight into the broken, dishevelled minds and bodies of the shell-shocked soldiers of World War One.

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Explore Owen’s Use of Metaphor in Mental Cases. (2017, Aug 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/explore-owens-use-of-metaphor-in-mental-cases-essay

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