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