Mental Cases - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Mental Cases

Owen writes as if he is a visitor to the hospital ward where the men, the ‘mental cases’ as he calls them, sit all day. He asks who they are and why they only sit and rock. Either he or the person he is with (‘we’ and ‘us’ are mentioned in the first and last verses) answers the questions. The men in the ward are those who have seen and experienced the horrors of war. They relive their experiences endlessly, with no respite.

Investigating Mental Cases

  • The horror Owen describes in Mental Cases, the ‘wading sloughs of flesh’ line 13 echoes the corpses and waist-high slush he describes in The Sentry. Both poems dwell on the eyes of the tormented. Note down the references to eyes in both poems
    • Re-read Dulce et Decorum Est. Notice Owen’s reference to the eyes of the victim of the gas attack
  • Why are the references to eyes so powerful and effective in Mental CasesThe Sentry and Dulce et Decorum Est?

WWI ShellshockCommentary on Mental Cases

Owen sets out to shock us in Mental Cases. Over the three verses Owen takes us on a journey. Firstly he asks who these men are and describes their behaviour in grim detail. He or another voice answers the question by describing what they have experienced on the front. Finally Owen links the horror of the past to the mental torture of the present.

In Mental Cases Owen makes reference to two major works of literature:

The Book of Revelation 

Revelation is the last book of the Bible, where the apostle John records his vision of heaven. Owen would be very familiar with this scripture from his Christian upbringing:

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, 'Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?' 14 I said to him, 'Sir, you know.' And he said to me, 'These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.' Revelation 7:13-17 ESVUK

In Mental Cases Owen turns this biblical picture on its head:

  • There are two voices in the extract as there are in the poem
  • The questioner asks who are the blessed, arrayed in white. In Mental Cases the protagonist asks a similar question about those who have ‘came out of great tribulation’ v.14
  • They too have experienced much blood - but it has not saved them as it has saved the saints in heaven
  • Like the saints, the mental cases are committed day and night; not to God but to reliving their traumas
  • They have not been led into living fountains of water - a metaphor for life and salvation
  • All tears have not been wiped away from their eyes. Rather their eyeballs ‘shrink tormented back into their brains’ l.19-20, where they see the repeated vision of hell
  • Unlike the saints in heaven, the mental cases are not protected from sunlight. Instead night and day are both alike - harbingers of blood and destruction from which there is no release.

Notice how Owen parodies the words of each verse as they celebrate the blessed. In Mental Cases the deranged become the damned and Owen sets out their eternal punishment for all to see.

Dante’s Inferno

Medieval illustration of hellOwen creates a Dantesque scenario in Mental Cases. Owen, like Dante in The Inferno, enters hell as a living visitor. Dante questions his guide, the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil:

Who are these by the black air so scourg’d?

Owen uses this phrase in line 26 of Mental Cases: the men pick at ‘the rope-knouts of their scourging’, linking them with Dante’s damned. Dante observes the damned with repugnance and pity much as Owen views the men in Mental Cases.


Owen wrote to his mother from Ripon on 25th May 1918:

I've been busy this evening with my terrific poem (at present) called The Deranged

Owen was using the word ‘terrific’ as in the sense of terrible or horrific, not in the sense we might use it today to mean very good. Two months later at Scarborough, Owen revised the poem and gave it its new title. Owen had been a ‘Mental Case’ at Craiglockhart. As with the poems where he made himself revisit horrific dreams, in writing this poem Owen would have called on his own experiences of mental breakdown.

Siegfried Sassoon, who was also a patient with Owen, wrote this about Craiglockhart:

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.

Investigating commentary on Mental Cases

  • Owen is using this grim poem to show the horrendous aftermath of war, which he regards as hellish. In the early part of the twentieth century, mental breakdown gained less sympathy than physical injury. What differences do you notice in Owen’s presentation of the men in the poem Mental Cases with his description of the man in Disabled?
    • Compare the way in which Owen creates his image of hell in Mental Cases with the image of hell he gives us in Strange Meeting
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