Regeneration by Pat Barker was first published in 1991. It is the first of three novels (known collectively as The Regeneration Trilogy) set during and after the First World War, and explores the experiences of British officers suffering from ‘shell shock’ who received treatment at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.
Regeneration centres on the radically new treatment provided at the time by the real-life psychiatrist and neurologist W. H. R. Rivers, whose approach was based on his research into nerve regeneration. Craiglockhart patients included the poets Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, who also feature in Barker’s novel.
Regeneration is a terrific, absorbing read. In lucid, measured prose, Barker brings alive both the suffering of the soldiers and the specific challenges faced by hospital staff. She vividly conveys contemporary attitudes to war and patriotism, and medical theories about shell shock and its treatment. She also brings alive the setting of Craiglockhart, where, in real life, Wilfred Owen began to compose his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in 1917. The title is from a line by the Roman poet Horace. Owen uses the whole quote to conclude his poem. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: ‘it is sweet and honourable to die for your country’.
This poem always bears rereading. It never loses its power to remind us that the choice to wage war has a terrible price. On the centenary anniversary of Armistace Day, a hundred years since the guns at long, long last fell silent on the Western Front, we can perhaps best honour those thousands who suffered by reflecting on Owen’s call to question the ‘high zest’ of adversarial political and patriotic rhetoric. This is a poem for peace.
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 floundering 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.
See and hear the poem performed by Christopher Eccleston.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.