Mental Cases - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Mental Cases


Owen uses a few select and effective metaphors in this poem to emphasise the plight of the men:

  • They are ‘purgatorial shadows’, an image of hell and death which heads up the poem in l.2
  • Their faces have been ‘gouged’ l.6 by ‘stroke on stroke of pain’ l.5 into ‘chasms’. Hyperbole seems to be the only poetic device strong enough for Owen to show the degree of their suffering
  • They ‘pluck at the knouts (knots) of their scourging’. Owen juxtaposes two disturbing images. Jesus was whipped and scourged by Pilate before being crucified (John 19:1), indicating that the men’s suffering is Christ-like. However, traditionally inmates of mental asylums (such as Bedlam) were tasked with picking hemp from old and knotted ship’s rigging so that the material could be re-used, a picture of depressingly difficult, frustrating and often fruitless labour. 


Owen uses three similes in Mental Cases, each adding to the vivid image of pain and suffering:

  • ‘Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked’ l.4. The men are made to appear shocking and evil, despite being the victims of war
  • ‘Sunlight seems a blood-smear’ l.21. Nothing good or positive ever penetrates the consciousness of the mental cases. Everything is a reminder of the death and destruction they have seen
  • ‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh’ l.22. Having to endure another day means having to revisit pain again. We can envisage a physical wound bursting, but their torments are mental and never heal - the hidden injury of neurasthenia.


Owen’s use of personification in Mental Cases contributes to the sense that the men are haunted by figures from the past. ‘Misery’ l.8 swelters through their bodies and ‘Memory’, almost lover-like, ‘fingers’ hair but only to remind them of murder. l.11. The idea that ‘the Dead have ravished’ their minds suggests that their dead comrades have seduced them rather than destroyed them. They are incapable of getting Death out of their heads. Ravished has an archaic meaning of capturing, raping and carrying someone off; the more modern usage is of being captivated and bewitched. There are reasons for Owen using both meanings of the word.

Pathetic fallacy

Owen shows how even nature is against those who suffer in this way. ‘Sunlight’ which should bring light and life ‘seems a blood-smear’ and ‘night’ which could bring relief in sleep ‘comes blood-black’ l. 21. ‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh’, offering no hope of a new day l. 22. Owen uses the same pathetic fallacy in Spring Offensive when the troops find that ‘the whole sky burned with fury against them’.


The mental cases themselves are a symbol of the consequences of war and of man’s inhumanity to man. Nature is a powerful but negative symbol in this poem. She brings with the dawn and daylight nothing but pain and the night brings no relief. The overwhelming symbol is of blood and death, summing up the horrors of war.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Owen’s use of the pathetic fallacy in Mental Cases is echoed in Spring Offensive and Futility. Make a note of how Owen uses the pathetic fallacy in each of the poems.
    • How effective is this poetic device in creating the poetry which comes, in Owen’s view, through the pity?
  • Which of Mental CasesSpring Offensive and Futility do you find most moving?
    • Can you explain why?

Themes in Mental Cases

  • Hell: the over-riding theme in Mental Cases is the hell endured by men who have survived the trenches but who suffer shell shock as a result of their experiences
  • Blood, suffering and death are also key themes. It is the memory of these horrors which haunt the men in the poem
  • Guilt: Owen is exploring in this poem the guilt felt by the whole (who are uninjured) for their part in the fate of mental cases:
    Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
    Pawing us who dealt them war and madness. l.27-l.28

Owen knows that, as an officer, he gave the orders for men to go over the top and encounter the conditions which are later recalled with such horror.

Investigating themes in Mental Cases

  • Owen admits a share in  the guilt which is such an important theme in Mental Cases. Why does Owen feel guilty about these particular men?
  • Compare the theme of guilt in Mental Cases with Owen’s feelings for the soldier in The Sentry
  • Compare the theme of guilt in Mental Cases with Owen’s feelings for the soldier in S.I.W.
  • In what way is the theme of Mental Cases significantly different to that of Disabled?
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