Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"The Healing Power of Poetry"

Rebecca Mason (Spring 2004)

The devastations and repercussions of war are inimitable, and can sometimes be left unhealed. However, men and women have had to find cures to lick their wounds and resettle the turbulence existing within their minds. In Pat Barker's emotionally powerful war novel Regeneration, we are introduced to a war journal, called the Hydra, on page 84, which served as healing tool for WWI soldiers. This journal contained articles, cartoons, poetry, letters, and all kinds of other different types of writing. Barker uses the Hydra in her novel to mark the healing power of writing in the lives of these men.

Poetry therapy has a long history, being recognized as far back as the first songs chanted around the camp-fires of primitive people. To these people, the chant is what heals the heart and soul. In the English language, the word "therapy" comes from the Greek word "therapeia," which means to nurse or cure through expressive arts such as dance, song, poem and drama. The Greeks have also informed us that Asclepius, the god of healing, was the son of Apollo, the god of poetry, medicine and the historical arts (Longo). In addition, mythological beliefs say that Oceanus told Promethus that "words are the physician of the mind diseased." The use of poetry therapy has therefore been discovered by numerous cultures since the beginning of language (Longo).

Once recognized for its healing power, this therapy quickly moved to the North American continent. Within the American colonies, the first American hospital to care for the mentally ill was founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin, called the Pennsylvania Hospital. This hospital is known to have included reading, writing, and then also the actual publishing of their writings in a newspaper they named "The Illuminator." In recent times, in the 1960s and 1970s, the term "bibliotherapy" was created to literally embrace the meaning that literature is here to serve and help. During this time, researchers continually investigated it in the attempt to get something definitively published. In 1969, Dr. Leedy published the first scholarly book, Poetry Therapy, which contained essays by numerous early pioneers of the field. Not much later, the Poetry Therapy Institute opened on the west coast, founded by Arthur Lerner, with a Ph.D from Los Angeles, and who in 1976 wrote "Poetry in the Therapeutic Experience." Finally, in 1980, a meeting was held with all of these interested investigators to create guidelines for training and certification in poetry therapy. This meeting resulted in the founding of what is now known as "The National Association for Poetry Therapy," which can be accessed at <> (Longo).

These early, as well as more recent, discoveries have distinguished particular reasons as to why poetry, and the use of words, can help purify and refresh the inner being. One is the role that rhythm plays in poetry. It tends to have the ability to move the writer from one place to another, while feelings are at the same time being expressed. Poetry takes people to their "special place," a place of solitude and intuitive thought, releasing all inhibitions. Practitioners who use poetry therapy try to encourage people to not fear failure or embarrassment when writing a poem. It becomes a personal and private form of self-help (Longo).

We see this specific form of self-help directly in the Hydra. The Hydra itself is a wartime journal of different genres of writing from poetry, to essays, to cartooning, to lettering (Lee). Wilfred Owen, the editor, lived from 1893-1918, and produced the journal during his time at Craiglockhart (Lee). Owen gained much progress in his writing at Craiglockhart, especially after he became friends with Sassoon. They ended up editing each other's writing while working on the Hydra at the same time (Rusche). The first page of the Hydra shows a picture of Craiglockhart War Hospital, while the last is a drawing of waterfowl. This journal becomes a work of art during one of the most memorable times of British History.

Barker uses this fascinating piece of work in order to emphasize the healing power of words. In the novel, the Hydra's appearance on page 84 gives the readers an idea of the actual pride and interest that these men have in writing. They all are presently patients of Dr. William Rivers, at Craiglockhart War Hospital. In Part Two, Chapter Eight, Sassoon and Owen are talking about pacifism and people they know who had died in the war. Owen and Sassoon begin talking about writing poetry, and Sassoon poses a question to Owen:

"Did you say you wrote?"
"I didn't, but I do."
"Yes. Nothing in print yet. Oh, which reminds me. I'm editor of the Hydra. The hospital magazine? I was wondering if you could let us have
something. It needn't be -- "
"Yes, I'll look something out...." (Barker 84)

They go on talking about Owen getting his poems to Sassoon, and Owen shocks Sassoon at one of his responses. He tells Sassoon that he doesn't write about the war; he writes about other, happier things. Sassoon instantly questions Owen's actions, thinking that it would be the one, and possibly the only, topic that he did write about. However, after Owen's encounter with Sassoon, he soon begins writing about the war. This scene is significant because Owen shows Sassoon his purpose for writing in his beginning stages of writing. It provides a safety net, a place where he can go a feel comfort, or as he says, "take refuge in," as if the writing sheltered him from the madness of the war. Both of these published poets, Sassoon and Owen, bring great historical aspect and truth to the novel because they were real people, who although wrote about different themes, wrote to help cope with this reality.

From the very beginning of the book, Barker presents her theme of the power of writing. Poetry therapy is what these soldiers of WWI resorted to in order to find sanity and complacency within themselves. Siegfried Sassoon, in 1917, describes the cruelties of war in his letter "Finished with the War: A Soldier's Declaration," with which Pat Barker decides to begin her novel, Regeneration Sassoon writes, "I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defiance and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest" (Barker 3). This segment is only a mere part of Sassoon's powerful claim for the justice of British soldiers. By beginning her novel with Sassoon's written protest, Barker foreshadows her theme of the power of writing, and how the written word can externalize trapped emotions.

The next time we see Sassoon's writing comes rather quickly on page 24 and 25. Rivers opens up some information that Graves gave to him about Sassoon and it is pieces of paper with poems written on them in regards to the war. Rivers at first doesn't know what to think of these poems but then comes to a simple conclusion: writing was Sassoon's form of therapy. Barker writes on page 26:

Writing the poems had obviously been therapeutic, but then Rivers suspected that writing the Declaration might have been therapeutic too. He thought that Sassoon's poetry and his protest sprang from a single source, and each could be linked to his recovery from that terrible period of nightmares and hallucinations. If that was true, then persuading Sassoon to give in and go back would be a much more complicated and risky business than he had thought, and might well precipitate a relapse.

Therefore, it was not only the writing of poetry that is therapeutic for him; it is the general sense of expressing his ideas and feelings in words. This scene is what initially triggers Rivers' thoughts about how poetry writing could be a vessel to Sassoon's healing, or even just a facilitator in dealing with wartime emotions.

Sassoon's vessel, his poetry writing, is published in the Hydra, and it becomes a form of art throughout the novel, rather than just a piece of writing. These words are written with heart, with emotion, and with glory, and are crafted by the artists, such as Sassoon, into a creative form. The poetry produced by these men, such as "The General" and "To the Warmongers," create feeling and pronounce statements of injustice. There is great strength and artistic features in words such as these:

For you our battles shine
With triumph half-divine;
And the glory of the dead
Kindles in each proud eye.
But a curse is on my head,
That shall not be unsaid,
And the wounds in my heart are red,
For I have watched them die. (Barker 25)

Barker uses the Hydra to give an artistic effect to the entire novel, showing not only the brilliance, but the creativity of these men.

From the very beginning of Regeneration, Barker creates a central theme for the novel: poetry as therapy. This novel is an exemplary portrayal of the emotional effects of World War I. It brings to the surface the physical and mental hardships encountered by these men of such honor and solid bravery through the war journal, the Hydra. The appearance of the actual historical journal in the novel adds an artistic effect, and shows the significance of writing to these men. Not only does it convey the effects of writing, it may also project the idea that reading poetry may also be just as therapeutic. Poetry therapy is not a theme that people would generally relate to the cure of barbaric men at war, which is indeed what makes this novel so brilliant. Soldiers too have a sensitive side, and Barker has proven to acknowledge and praise it.

Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.

Lee, Stuart. "The Hydra." HTML JTAP Virtual Seminars Project. April 1998. 8 April 2004. <>

Longo, Perie J. "Poetry as Therapy." Sanctuary House of Santa Barbara, Inc., 1996-2003. 13 April 2004. <>

Rusche, Harry. "Lost Poets of the Great War." Emory University, 1997. 3 May 2004.

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