Poetry Review Essay

This essay has a total of 3616 words and 14 pages.

Poetry Review

Although the poems "Recalling War" by Robert Graves and "Mental Cases" by Wilfred Owen are
both concerned with the damage that war does to the soldiers involved, they are different
in almost every other respect. Owen's poem examines the physical and mental effects of war
in a very personal and direct way - his voice is very much in evidence in this poem - he
has clearly seen people like the 'mental cases' who are described. It is also evident that
Owen's own experiences of the war are described: he challenges the reader with terrifying
images, in order that the reader can begin to comprehend the causes of the madness. Graves
on the other hand is far more detached. His argument is distant, using ancient images to
explore the immediate and long-term effects of war on the soldier. The poem is a
meditation on the title, Graves examining the developing experiences and memories of war
with a progression of images and metaphors.

"Mental Cases" is a forceful poem, containing three substantial stanzas which focus on
different aspects of Owen's subject. The first stanza is a detailed description of what
the 'mental cases' look like. Their outward appearance is gruesome, "Baring teeth that
leer like skulls'", preparing the reader for the even more horrifying second stanza. The
second verse concentrates on the men's past experiences, the deaths they have witnessed
and the unimaginable nightmares they have lived through: "Multitudinous murders they once
witnessed." The last stanza concludes the poem, explaining how the men's lives are haunted
by their experiences, they go mad because the past filters into every aspect of their
present lives, the men retreat away from the memories and into madness. The form of Owen's
poem is, therefore, built around three main points: the appearance of the men, their
experiences, and the effect this has on their lives.

In Graves' poem the form is also key to understanding the poem, but perhaps in a less
obvious way. "Recalling War" has five stanzas, in a form that corresponds to the
psychological emotions and physical experience war provokes. The first stanza describes
how Graves expects the war to be remembered twenty years after the event: the wounds have
healed and the blind and handicapped men forget the injuries the war caused, as their
memories are blurred by the distance of time; "The one-legged man forgets his leg of
wood". In the second stanza Graves moves on to question the nature of war. This verse is a
description of the atmosphere and setting of war. "Even when the season was the airiest
May/ Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out". The third stanza focuses on the
battle itself, and the fourth explores the aftermath of battle and the unbearable nature
of the war. The fifth and final stanza returns to the ideas expressed in the first stanza,
of war being an unreal memory. The form of this poem is crucial to its understanding. The
progressions marked by the stanzas highlights the argument Graves is making.

"Mental Cases" and "Recalling War" are both poems that rely on the atmosphere and tone
they create, indeed this is a key source of their power. Owen creates a terrifying
atmosphere throughout the poem, which is clearly a reflection of his subject matter. Not
only does Owen describe in awful detail the shocking appearance of the men, he also
includes horrific images of war. The tone is very powerful, with Owen asking questions in
the first stanza, "but who are these hellish?", a device which cleverly establishes direct
contact with the reader and an engaging discourse. This connection with the reader is
exploited in the second verse, in which the reader experiences the full force of Owen's
imagery. The final stanza opens with a tone that is factual: "-Thus their hands are
plucking at each other", summarizing the fact that these men behave the way they do
because of the events they have and are experiencing. Owen ends the poem by insisting on
the complicity of both himself and the reader in the fate of these men, an accusation
which, after the powerful prelude, is hard to deny.

Whereas Owen's poem is powerful as a result of its consistently horrific atmosphere and
tone, Graves' poem changes tone from stanza to stanza, emulating the different stages of
feeling a soldier experiences. The poem opens with a tone that is factual yet distant, as
though an old tale were being told "As when the morning traveller turns and views/His wild
night-stumbling carved into a hill". This tone emphasizes Graves' description of dimly
remembered suffering which is fading into the distance: "Entrance and exit wounds are
silvered clean". The second stanza moves into a different tone, war is described as not
only a war between countries, but a universal disaster "No mere discord of flags/ But an
infection of the common sky". The tone and atmosphere created are ominous, there is a
feeling of anticipation and fear reminding the reader of soldiers waiting for battle:

oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again

The third stanza does not immediately change tone, however the feeling of fear increases
as Graves dwells on thoughts of premature death and little on "valiant yard". However,
roughly half way through the stanza the tone does change dramatically. The poem becomes
not fearful but simple and clear, the necessities of life are described and the tone
reminds the reader of an adrenaline filled soldier, thrilled with the battle and instinct
of survival, "A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call.". However, by the next stanza the
battle is over and the experience of war assumes a hopeless guise. Everything good in the
world has turned to ashes "Extinction of each happy art and faith" and the duty to fight
turns into "the duty to run mad." The tone of the poem is tragic, having seen hope turn to
fear, exhilaration and finally collapse. The powerful climax of the poem in the fourth
stanza is further emphasized in the last verse, as the tone returns to one of unreal
memory. The poet's voice is ironic with child-like naivete:

Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill.
The last lines of the poem change in tone again as the poet describes a future of despair
if the past cannot be remembered with accuracy and acceptance:

When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.
Both poets use a very descriptive and revealing choice of vocabulary. One particular
feature of Owen's poem is the use of alliteration to emphasize the image he is trying to
create:

Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders
The repetition of the 'm' sound serves to increase the impact of the image, reminding the
reader of a stammering, shell-shocked soldier. "Thus their heads wear this hilarious,
hideous" is another example of alliteration. Owen's choice of words such as "slob",
"baring", "swelters", "hideous" and "flesh" all help to increase the reader's horror as
theses words describe so well the nightmares the men are experiencing. Graves' words also
have a strong impact on the reader: his words highlight the differences between the
stanzas. The second stanza describing the wait for the battle uses words like "sagged",
"ominously", "oppressed", "clenched" and "pressed". In contrast to this the last stanza
includes words such as "piecrust", "nibbling", "rattle" and "dandelions", emphasizing the
child-like memories of war. The contrast between the third and fourth stanzas are even
more noticeable. The second half of the third stanza aims to highlight the simple and
uncomplicated feelings the soldiers experience while they are in combat, this is reflected
by words like "roof", "call", "wine", "rage" and "lack" , these are all monosyllabic words
stressing Gravesi point. In the fourth stanza Graves' vocabulary changes and becomes more
complex: "foundering" "sublimities", "protesting", "Extinction", "unendurable", again
these are words which reflect the fact that the soldiers are now questioning and trying to
solve a problem or paradox. The contrasts in the two poets vocabulary is intriguing.
Owen's vocabulary is far more raw and hard hitting, thought about but not agonized over.
Graves' choice of vocabulary reflects the fact that he is making a more complex series of
points; the words are perhaps rather contrived.

The images in "Mental Cases" by Owen are perhaps the most shocking aspect of the poem.
There are three central images within Owen's poem, contained within the three stanzas. The
first images are those which describe the 'mental cases'. Owen uses simile and metaphor.
"from jaws that slob their relish", the men are described like animals, drooling with
"Drooping tongues". These images imply that the experience of war for these men has taken
away their humanity. Owen then describes the men as having "teeth that leer like skulls'
teeth". This simile not only creates a clear picture in the mind of the reader, it also
serves to show how these 'mental cases' are not lucky to be alive, in fact, they suffer
more than their dead comrades: not only do they look like death and behave like animals,
they also continue to suffer the miseries of the living world, that of memory, nightmares
and madness: "What slow panic/Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?". This
image is continued to the end of the stanza as Owen claims that seeing these mad men would
make anyone think they were in hell because of the ghastly picture they create. This again
strengthens Owen's argument that, although these men survived the war alive, the scars
they suffer are worse than any death we can imagine.

Within the second stanza Owen progresses to create images of the living hell which the
mental cases experienced and are now reliving. This is the climax of the poem as line upon
line brings new horrors. The first line of the stanza shows more explicitly the idea that
the men are suffering perhaps more than even the dead men: "There are men whose minds the
Dead have ravaged". This explores the feeling that the mad men owe their lives in someway
to the death of their comrades. The image of their fellow soldiers who are now dead haunts
them, this is a parallel with the sentiments Owen develops at the end of the poem, that
the reader and poet are somehow to blame for the madness of the 'mental cases', in the
same way that the mad men feel guilt about the men killed. Owen uses imagery in the poem
in such away that the reader is actually haunted by the images of the mad men, and we are
also left with a strong sense of guilt at their sacrifice for our life and sanity. The
images continue to horrify throughout the rest of the stanza. One of the most shocking
images is that of the mad men walking on the corpses of dead men "Wading sloughs of flesh
these helpless wander" an image which is disturbing not only because of the image it
creates, but also the idea that these suffering men reached the position they are in
because of the deaths of thousands of others, "Treading blood from lungs that had loved
laughter". This is a terribly shocking image mainly because Owen has chosen to give one of
the few references to emotion in the poem to a decapitated corpse on which the mad men
walk. The choice to put "loving laughter" next to "blood from lungs" is such a stark
contrast that the horror of what Owen is describing cannot sink in on the first time of
reading, it is further emphasized by the use of alliteration which stresses the link
between the words; It is an image too terrible to comprehend so it serves its purpose, the
reader is disgusted and revolted by what is described.
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