Trauma and PTSD

PTSD Poetry: Wilfred Owen

photo of Wilfred Owen
Public domain

Nick of Fiction & Ideas recently did a post about imagery in writing, which immediately brought to mind Wilfred Owen. I first encountered his poetry when I was in first-year English in university. Overall, it was a pretty uninspiring class, but Owen stood out. His poems were about World War I, in which he fought, and they’re powerfully evocative. He was killed seven days before the end of the war. His work is now in the public domain, so I thought I’d share my favourites here.


Arms and the Boy
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For this teeth seem for laughing round an apple,
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls
Arms and the Boy poem by Wilfred Owen

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.*

* Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's homeland – comes from the Roman poet Horace

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Owen’s poems were written after he was hospitalized and diagnosed with neurasthenia, also known as shell shock. It was at that time that he met Siegfried Sassoon, who was a major influence in his writing. The diagnosis of PTSD didn’t exist at the time, but shell shock was essentially the same thing.

Considering the poems along with the PTSD diagnosis, I wonder how much of a role flashbacks played in the vivid sensory element of his poetry. Was writing therapeutic? Dulce et Decorum Est has a particularly strong anti-war message; was it a statement about society’s complicity in traumatizing so men young men?

We humans like to kill each other. Wilfred Owen put words to the horror, but vast, vast numbers of people have been sent to die for their country (or other social group). It’s so stupid, yet we keep doing it. And we expect people who’ve been transplanted into the middle of hell to come back home and just be fine. It’s absurd that governments think it works that way.

It makes you wonder, is humanity essential good? Because when you look back in time, there’s a whole shit ton of ugly to go along with the beautiful.

Anyway, this isn’t really going anywhere. Just some thoughts and some powerful poetry.

24 thoughts on “PTSD Poetry: Wilfred Owen”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Ashley. This is indeed some powerful poetry. And, yeah, I don’t know if humans are inherently evil, but we are def capable of some next-level nasty shit!

  2. Such sad poems!! They tore my heart. War is dreadful. I’m hopeful that humanity’s need to kill each other is abating? But that’s probably just my inner optimism. Hard to know, but it’s so senseless. These are great poems! I’m also a huge fan of “Brothers in Arms” (the song, not the album, although the whole album’s great) by Dire Straits. Both the song and its lyrics separate from the song make me cry.

    1. From what I’ve read, while it sometimes feels like society has gotten more violent, we’re actually killing each other less than in the post.

  3. To die just 7 days before the war ended seems like some kind of messed up cruelty, doesn’t it?

    I know I’ve read a couple of Owen’s poems before but I’m really glad you shared them here because I don’t think I would have fully appreciated them when I was in high school or college. Dulce et Decorum Est was one that always stuck with me for the last lines, which I fully agree with in their poignancy. He has an incredible way of making each piece emotive and vibrant, with clear visuals that still allow for a silky, eloquent read.

    You’re right, people killing people is stupid and I’ve never liked the way war was sensationalised to tempt young people into ‘doing right for their country’. You make a good point about PTSD and the visuals in his poetry. I hope writing was at least a little cathartic for him. xx

  4. War is ugly. Of recent times I think WWI was the ugliest. I have long been a reader and admirer of the “war poets” (that term being applied to group that included Owen, Sassoon, Brooke et al). I am also attached to the poems of Stephen Crane, he too wrote of war, tho it was the American Civil War…All war poetry is the result of PTSD – how could it not be?

  5. This is amazing! I loved studying Dulce Et Decorum Est in 4th year at secondary school (when we were 16) and really enjoyed reading between the words. That and a few Robert Burns poems printed on my granny’s tea towels ignited an interest in poetry. Thank you Mrs Watson and Granny McAdam 🙂

    1. The only English teacher I remember from secondary school was Mr. Bull in grade 10, who taught us The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams.

  6. These days the main poetry I read is written by blogger friends, but I went through a phase of trying to read a published poem a day, and the War Poets were favourites. Thanks for sharing these.

    I don’t think humanity is essentially good or essentially evil. I think we’re pretty malleable, which is why it’s important to be self-aware and periodically check why you believe what you believe and why you do what you do. It’s frightening how we can let other people do our thinking for us if we’re not careful — or at least, I can let other people do my thinking for me.

  7. Is adore the right word for Dulce Et Decorum Est? Whatever, it’s been in my heart since grade 11. Thanks for sharing Mr. Owen’s poetry and history. ♥️

  8. We construct our reality, our societies. Almost everyone goes along with the tide. In our time it’s capitalism, consumption, adrenaline, immediate gratification.

    In our eyes, this is not a natural state; it’s habit.

    Society expects returning soldiers to plug back in to the capitalist machine for the benefit of companies. We are not a society of feelings, needs, compassion. But we could be. We can grow the numbers of the compassionate, grow empathy, de-emphasize consumption. We can make something newer. It will take lots of time

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