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Therapeutic Measures: The Hydra and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 14, Number 1, January 2007
pp. 35-54 | 10.1353/mod.2007.0019

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I

In No More Parades, Ford Madox Ford presents a fictionalized account of how English poetic forms were used to counter the effects of mental crises during the First World War. The main character, Tietjens, attempts to write his way out of a nervous breakdown by speedily composing a sonnet: "He said to himself that by God he must take himself in hand. He grabbed with his heavy hands at a piece of buff paper and wrote on it in a column of fat, wet letters

a
b
b
a
a
b
b
a, and so on."

Tietjens writes the sonnet in "two minutes and eleven seconds" on "buff" paper with "fat," "wet" letters, the upright letters themselves taking on the traits of a healthy body. Immediately after, the broken-down bodies of soldiers enter the room, returning from battle, "[t]heir feet shuffled desultorily; they . . . held in unliterary hands small open books that they dropped from time to time." Tietjens's empowered "literary" hands act of their own volition, writing the sonnet as he barks orders simultaneously to men around him, careful "never to think on the subject of a shock at the moment of a shock." This passage demonstrates how Captain Tietjens's hands, in their practiced exercise of writing in English meter, order his mind so that he can continue successfully to give orders to the men around him—"unliterary" men whose own "feet" shuffle aimlessly. Military feet and metrical feet are joined here, in the automatic composition of a line meant to discipline and protect.

Paul Fussell and Samuel Hynes have each discussed how the "literariness" of the First World War promoted the use of typical romantic images in soldier poetry, each critic careful to point out the privileged class education available to the officer-poets who produced the now famous poetic images of the First World War. Though these critics show how popular anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury and the Oxford Anthology of English Poetry provided comfort for soldiers on the front, they neglect to discuss how soldier-poets had been trained, prewar, in the particularities of English poetic craft and how these practices—the ability to compose a sonnet in two and a half minutes—not only provided comfort for soldiers on the front but, in some cases, directly assisted them in recovering from psychological trauma. The rich and unexamined archive of prosodic manuals from this era demonstrates how would-be poets were charged with the task of learning correct English poetic form with the same rhetoric of shaping and disciplining young Englishmen that accompanied the most rigid classical pedagogies. For instance, R. F. Brewer's popular manual Orthometry, or, The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry, which Wilfred Owen owned, encourages poets to understand metrical laws to "at least accustom the beginner to the proper use of his feet before trusting him to untried wings" and praises how English poetic forms have become successfully imprinted in the minds of all Englishmen:

The study of our poets has now happily attained a footing in the curriculum of nearly all our public schools and colleges; while the millions who attend our elementary schools have suitable poetic passages indelibly impressed upon their memory in youth. All but pessimists anticipate good results of this early training upon the tastes and re-creative [sic] pleasures of young England of the twentieth century.

It is not only the "re-creative" pleasure of writing poetry (read both as "recreation" and that which that can be created again and again), but also the importance of "training" that emerges in an examination of these manuals. Though Fussell points out the common discipline of classical education among officers, the disciplinary function of prewar and wartime English poetic teaching also haunts much First World War soldier poetry and gives us new perspectives on how shell-shock psychiatrists during the First World War used the already imprinted disciplines of writing poetry in English to "incorporate a notion of discipline on the one hand and therapy on the other." The idea of using writing as a form of therapy and mental ordering relied on the assumption that education had done its work before...



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