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“When work and thought forbid the heart to feel”: Henry Head and The Price of Wartime Medicine

World War I: a ward in a hospital ship. Oil painting by Godfrey Jervis Gordon ("Jan Gordon"), 1917. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.

The British neurologist and poet Henry Head (1861-1940) was positioned right at the fascinating intersection of modernist literature and early twentieth century science, although he is today perhaps of greater significance to the history of science than to literature. As the literary scholar Paul Peppis argues, “human” sciences such as psychology “examine phenomena of distinct and pressing importance for literary modernists, particularly during the years leading up to and into the Great War [… such as] minds, especially damaged minds, psychological trauma, and interiority” (4). Head treated brain damaged and shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War at the Empire Hospital in London and was active in artistic circles, befriending war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Nichols, and Robert Graves. Head himself wrote war poems, some of which were published during the war years, with a collection Destroyers and Other Verses published in 1919 (Reich 1257-8). Head’s literary interests were closely linked to his scientific ones, and in the view of his biographer L.S. Jacyna, Head used literary writing “to provide literary forms that did justice to the richness of his inner life. From that perspective they assume a scientific aspect: they were attempts to describe a portion of his phenomenal life that was not amenable to the dry prose of a psychological paper” (225). For Head, then, “Literature […] can serve as a kind of psychological laboratory. Such experimentation was dependent upon the imaginative capacities of the psychologist” (Jacyna 226-7). Conversely, Head’s neurological interests were also strongly connected to language. He did extensive work on aphasia (language disorders caused by brain injury) (Jacyna 1). Head would also treat Robert Nichols for neurasthenia, and literary discussions formed a prominent part of their therapy sessions (Jacyna 89).

In one of his war poems, The Price (Destroyers 10), Head turns “the imaginative capacities of the psychologist” back onto the physician himself. The poem opens with a peaceful depiction of the descent of nightfall. The scene is suffused with dreamlike colors (“Night hovers blue,” “amber lanterns”). The dreamy effect is accentuated by soft sounds, including extensive plosive alliteration: “A soft penumbra on the path below, / And through the plumed pavilion of the trees”. In keeping with the tranquil atmosphere, Head himself is at peace: “my spirit tells / Its tale of arduous joys, / Pain conquered, Fear resolved, or Hope regained”. Even though the day has been long and “arduous,” he finds it rewarding, and has overcome pain and fear by gaining hope. As he settles down to sleep at the end of the first stanza, he feels that everything is in harmony, sanctioned by some “law divine” for which he feels “shy gratitude.”

In the second stanza, however, when the narrator is in the depths of sleep, this sense of peaceful repose is disrupted, as emphasized by the stanza break. The second stanza begins: “Through labyrinthine sleep I grope my way”. Instead of the harmony and sense of rightness in the first stanza, Head finds himself groping through a labyrinth, indicating that he is troubled and has lost his way. Moreover, he is “Feeble of purpose, sick at heart, and sure / Some unknown ill will lead my steps astray”. The structure of triple phrases here directly mirrors the triple phrases “Pain conquered, Fear resolved, or Hope regained” in the first stanza. In the second stanza, however, the sense of victory and resolution is directly subverted, and replaced by doubt, uncertainty, and lack of will. The anxieties of his war work that he has repressed during the day now trouble him at night. The dream is interrupted only by the arrival of day, but this does not give Head any comfort. The “dawn rays” are “cold and gray”, unlike the beautiful blues and ambers of the preceding night. The ending of the poem is deeply ambivalent: “And with closed eyes I thank my God for light, / For the fierce purpose of another day, / When work and thought forbid the heart to feel.” Thanking God for light has at first strongly positive connotations. However, he is thankful for the intense physical and intellectual work that will “forbid the heart to feel” and repress his uncertainties, only for those repressed emotions to return in sleep the following night again and again. That the physician would be engaging in repression to help him survive the difficult work of war medicine is not surprising; Vera Brittain memorably described the “self-protective callousness” necessary to endure war work as a nurse (176).

The Price engages in looking away. In the poem, Head admits that he is in the “labyrinthine” throes of an unpleasant dream, but the specific content of the dream is withheld from the reader; Head speaks only to a general sense of unease. In one sense, Head’s refusal to describe the dream makes it more eerie and disturbing to the reader. The refusal also speaks to the manner in which the repression of anxieties returns during the day; Head is writing the poem, and recollecting the dream, while he is awake, and the day will “forbid the heart to feel.” There is an inability then, to translate the repressed, nighttime experience into words.

In the literature of the First World War, the war doctor is often a highly authoritative, awe-inspiring, and even enigmatic figure. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, “My futile demons fled him – for his presence was a refutation of wrong-headedness […] he was the only man who could help me” (655). Mary Borden described the chief surgeon as “the wizard working like lightening through the night” (97). In All Quiet on the Western Front, one of Remarque’s characters is a chief surgeon who enjoys operating on flat feet, often leaving the reluctant patients crippled instead. In one scene the surgeon “lectures and jaws at [the privates] so long that in the end they consent. What else could they do? – They are mere privates, and he is a big bug” (260). In all these depictions, regardless of whether the doctor is adored, admired, or reviled, he is always powerful. War has a way of knocking long-held ideals off their pedestals. Soldiers are not supposed to be shell-shocked because they are brave, not cowards. Doctors are not supposed to be uncertain or indecisive because they are in positions of high authority and mediate between life and death. Poems such as The Price subvert this image of the powerful doctor, showing that just like soldiers, civilians, and nurses, doctors can be vulnerable, traumatized and in need of help. Seeing the powerful doctor as being victimized by war in some way requires a much deeper questioning of assumptions around medical authority.


Works Cited

Borden, Mary. The Forbidden Zone. Modern Voices, 1929.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925. Virago, 1978.

Head, Henry. Destroyers and Other Verses. Oxford University Press, 1919.

Jacyna, L. S. Medicine and Modernism: A Biography of Sir Henry Head. Pickering & Chatto, 2008.

Peppis, Paul. Sciences of Modernism: Ethnography, Sexology, and Psychology. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Reich, Stephen G. “Destroyers and Other Verses: Henry Head, the Poet.” Arch Neurol, vol. 45, 1988, pp. 1257-1260.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen, Random House, 1928.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. Faber and Faber, 1972.


Image Credit: World War I: a ward in a hospital ship. Oil painting by Godfrey Jervis Gordon (“Jan Gordon”), 1917. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.






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