‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen is a poignant portrayal of an injured soldier following WWI. Through the use of juxtaposition, we see the soldier mourning for his youth before the War took his limbs.
Written in 1917 by one of the most famous British War poets, Wilfred Owen, ‘Disabled’ explores the physical and psychological trauma experienced during WW1, through the depiction of an injured war veteran.
A young soldier sits isolated in a hospital and mournfully reflects on his decision to go to War – a comment on the misleading propaganda that influenced many young men to enlist. The speaker juxtaposes his current state of trauma and depression with his joyful life before the war. He mourns the life and youth that the war stole from him, as he spends the rest of his days in isolation and in ‘sick institutes’. It is a powerful comment on the debilitating effects of WWI.
‘Disabled‘ explores the tragedy of war through a description of the conflict that occurs in the trenches and through the emotional trauma a young soldier faces as he mourns his old life. Despite returning from the war and surviving brutal attacks from shells and machine guns, he feels that his life is over because he struggles to adjust to his ‘new life’ of disability. He suffers a deep psychological trauma: the loss of his youth and the loss of the life he treasured before the war.
The patriotic glorification of war that lured so many men to enlist for ‘hero’ status is further explored in ‘Disabled‘. Propaganda romanticized the idea of becoming a soldier. It depicted young women cheering men home and through the heroic status aligned with a soldier’s uniform. The protagonist was sold this disillusionment and joined the war to ‘look a god’ in his uniform. His utter disillusionment with war occurred as a result of its glorification within society.
The soldier consistently reminisces about his life before the war where he had plenty of companionships, both from friends and from the opposite sex. Following the War, he has none, making loneliness a prominent theme in ‘Disabled‘. The War not only cost him his legs but also his companionships: an overbearing loneliness, as a result of his disability, permeates the poem.
Structure and Form
‘Disabled’ is a seven-stanza poem of various lengths. The poem does not adhere to a traditional poetic form to emphasize the lack of control he now has on his life – he is completely dependent on the nurses that care for him. This shifting structure further mimics the soldier’s state of mind as his thoughts shift from past to present.
The soldier begins and ends the poem alone in the hospital, creating a cyclical structure. Therefore, his continuous isolation and lack of companionship is emphasized, despite that being the reason he joined the war in the first place.
Rhythm and Rhyme
‘Disabled‘ is predominantly written in iambic pentameter, meaning that the lines consist of five feet of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. This creates a feeling of monotony mirrored by the speaker’s current state of being as he ‘waits for dark’. However, metrical variation is also employed by the poet for specific effects explored later in the analysis.
Rhyme is employed within ‘Disabled’ but it is not consistent or fluid. The unpredictability of rhyme is employed to reflect the soldier’s difficulty in accepting his current state. Fluid rhyming would suggest an ease that this soldier certainly does not feel. The poem is saturated with words that have a rhyming match; however, there is no pattern to it. This imperfect rhyming creates a disjointed feeling which is again representative of the speaker’s physical and emotional state.
Throughout this poem, Owen makes use of several literary devices. This includes but is not limited to:
- Juxtaposition occurs through the consistent temporal movement from past to present in order to emphasize the soldier’s mournful reminiscence of his life pre-war.
- Caesura is a dramatic pause for effect, which is employed in order to dramatize ideas. Caesuras are usually placed to create end-stopped lines and abrupt stops to disrupt any rhythm in the poem, reflecting the soldier’s inability to move forward.
- Repetition is employed throughout the poem, prominently through the use of anaphora. In the closing lines, the poet employs anaphora through syntactical parallelism as he pleads for the nurses to put him to bed: ‘Why don’t they come?…….Why don’t they come?’ This works to emphasize the futility of life and the lack of hope that now dominates the soldier’s life.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
‘Disabled‘ uses third-person omniscient narration to introduce the soldier through the non-descript pronoun ‘he’. This further isolates the soldier as he has no identity. He is ‘waiting for dark’ which could metaphorically be representative of him waiting for death. The soldier is sat in an hospital in a ‘ghastly suit of grey’, where the guttural alliteration immediately introduces a harsh tone. He describes himself as: ‘legless, sewn short at the elbow’. The punctuation here creates a caesura and sense of disjointedness that reflects his physical state. The soldier hears the voices of youth in the park which he describes through the simile as ‘saddening like a hymn’, echoing the sentiment of mourning in church and funerals. He is mourning the loss of his youth.
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
The soldier reminisces about his prior life: joy is symbolized through the light imagery that completely juxtaposes the earlier darkness. Alliteration throughout further adds to the joyous setting. As the ‘air grew dim’, the happy tone is brought to an abrupt end. An end-stop marks a violent shift as he is suddenly brought back to his tragic reality as he talks of how ‘he threw away his knees’. This litote suggests a carelessness – the soldier sacrificed his knees in his careless decision to join the army. As a result, girls no longer find him attractive: ‘All of them touch him like some queer disease’. The simile furthers his isolation.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
The soldier reminisces on his handsome youth; however, the trochee ‘Now’ brings the reader violently back to the present. He states that today, his ‘back will never brace’, incorporating juxtaposition to emphasize his drastic change in circumstance. Through plosive alliteration, the speaker’s struggle is emphasized. When talking about how he lost his youth to the war he employs the metaphor of how he ‘poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry’. The metaphor ‘hot race’ creates a sense of competition, linking to the key theme of disillusionment: young men saw the War as an opportunity to become the victorious ‘hero’.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Stanza four of ‘Disabled‘ details the young man’s motivations for joining the war. The protagonist did not give much thought to joining, emphasized through the caesura in the line ‘He thought he better join. -He wonders why.’ Aspirant alliteration, followed by the end-stopped line in the second clause, illustrates his regret. The soldier further states that he joined the army out of vanity as ‘Someone had said he’d look a God in kilts’. This metaphor emphasizes the heroic image that was synonymous with soldiers as a result of propaganda because of the immortal connotations associated with ‘God’. It also suggests he was part of the Scottish regiment. These naïve reasons for joining the war resulted in him losing his legs.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
The soldier here digresses that he was too young to join the war and lied about his age in order to do so – a common occurrence in World War I. A syndetic list details why he joined the army – the opportunities and possibilities were endless in his eyes. He talks of the hopes of ‘Esprit de corps’, Latin for the feeling of pride in the group to which one belongs, which further emphasizes his want for heroic status. The patriotic yearning for glory led him to his demise.
The soldier in ‘Disabled‘ experiences many forms of loss. He loses his legs, his sense of masculinity, and his youth.
Wilfred Owen experienced the mental and physical trauma of the War as he served as a frontline soldier. Owen writes about the atrocities of War to contradict the patriotic propaganda that encouraged young soldiers to enlist.
The poem was written in 1917; however, it was published posthumously.
The speaker is an omniscient narrator who recounts his experiences with War and the effect this has had on him, both mentally and physically.
‘Disabled‘ is set in an unknown Hospital. Some suggest it is Craig Lockhart hospital where Owen himself was cared for.
Readers who enjoyed reading ‘Disabled‘ should consider reading some other Wilfred Owen poems such as:
- ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ – A shocking recounting of a mustard gas attack in World War 1.
- ‘Anthem for the Doomed Youth‘ – A dual rejection of the brutality of War and religion.
Some other related poems that could be of interest include:
- ‘Who’s for the Game?‘ by Jessie Pope – A pro-war sentiment poem encouraging young men to join the War.
- ‘In Flanders Field‘ by John McCrae – A patriotic description of the fields of the fallen soldiers of World War I, with a pro-war call to arms at its conclusion.