The poem Disabled by Wilfred Owen scrutinises the consequences of war on those who experience it by contrasting the current life of an impaired soldier after war to what he was capable of doing before the war.
Owen creates a striking view of the soldier’s life by the depressing description of the soldier in the first verse. The verse starts off with a description of the soldier being an isolated man, in a wheelchair, alone, in a park, incapable of walking or relishing any of the activities taking place right next to him, which makes the soldier feel despondent and useless. Although he is dressed formally, his uniform is trimmed at certain spots which suggests that he has become handicapped, sitting down, while he waits involuntarily, concentrating on the voices of youthful children which dishearten him, as they force him to recall what he recklessly lost – just to be able to fight for his country to impress the ‘giddy jilts’.
In the second verse, Owen makes use of flash backs to compare how the soldier was before and after the war which creates a striking view of the soldier’s life. The soldier is made to remember how luxurious his life used to be compared to before the injury, which suggests that the soldier really wants to have his old life back and wishes that he hadn’t joined the army but unfortunately, he cannot change the past. He remembers how the women frequently approached him but he now regrets losing his legs as he now knows that he will never again be able to ‘feel’ their gentle touch as they only touch him now as they are required to, although they don’t want to, as if he is a bizarre irregularity that no one has ever seen before.
Owen also creates a striking view by making the soldier remember how it was before joining the army and becoming handicapped ‘ being a football professional and satisfied of the ‘blood smear down his leg’ which occurred from an injury during a football match, and how the crowd had hauled him across the pitch on their shoulders, publicizing his valour and excellence. It was because of this that the soldier thought of joining the army, to appear stronger and more capable to women. The reason behind why the soldier decided to join the army is examined, as he had never been patriotic enough to invade the Germans until the football match, and he had been too young to not understand the consequences of war which he is now experiencing. The young soldier had only thought of the adventure associated with war: the joy of holding a gun. Only ‘some cheered him home’ but ‘not as crowds cheer Goal’.
The young soldier discovers the nature of reality as he remembers the amount of people that applauded his departure, but to his shock, notices how there had been less crowds of people on his return, and all his achievements in the war were erased and the glory he had expected was denied to him due to being considered an ‘abnormality’. Only the vicar has time to visit him now as he regards the soldier as dead due to how society regards him although he risked his life, fighting for a country, that in the end, doesn’t reward him ‘ instead is shunned away from society.
Now the soldier starts to look at his current life, which he is forced to accept as the women glance at him and then to the men that are ‘whole’. The women’s glancing suggests that they are embarrassed to look at the soldier as he is constantly being rejected from society. He is also forced to accept that he will have to live the rest of his life following someone else’s rules, as he is not able to help himself. In the end, he helplessly wonders why no one has come to ‘put him to bed’ so he hopes and prays that someone will remember about him instead of following society and becoming ego-centric. Owen therefore creates a striking view of the soldier’s life as he has done all he can but society has let him down, even though he had risked his life protecting society.
The slightly frequent changes between the past and present create a striking view on what the soldier has had to surrender. Every verse starts with Owen depicting the soldier’s current life and circumstances, then compares it to the soldier’s past life but the last verse portrays his thoughts about his future: a life that he cannot manage, living a life on dependency and helplessness.
The soldier had been an egoistic man seeking glory by fighting in the war, thinking only about his looks, and the attraction that would have been shown by the women towards him, but ends up losing the chance to achieve his dreams. Unimaginably, the soldier does not get any medals on his return and there weren’t endless lines of people applauding: there is only a used wheelchair, waiting, gathering dust, and a small crowd of cheerless people. Instead of how he imagined, the people express their sympathy for the sacrifice he has made for his country rather than honoring his heroism towards the war, making the soldier feel pathetic and unworthy. This creates a striking view on the soldier’s life because it shows that he had joined the army whilst thinking emotionally rather than logically.
Wilfred Owen’s powerful anti-war poem ‘Disabled’ (1917) was republished in the Guardian newspaper on November 13 2008, as part of the newspaper’s seven-day focus on aspects of the First World War. That day’s topic was ‘Art and War’, and it included discussions of how artists and writers had sought to turn their experiences of the First World War into art.
Owen’s poem was published by itself with no commentary and no explanation given for its presence, so the reader was left to make up his or her own mind.
The poem ‘Disabled’ was written while its author was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. Owen had been sent to Craiglockhart after being diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ (‘shell-shock’). It was here that he met his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was also a patient.
The writer Robert Graves, who had come to the hospital to visit Sassoon, read ‘Disabled’ and praised it highly. As an anti-war poem, ‘Disabled’ is moving and powerful, but when looked at for its portrayal of disability, it is extremely problematic, invoking as it does familiar disablist tropes of asexuality, helplessness and hopelessness. The poem has an omniscient narrator, who tells the story of the central character, an unnamed ex-soldier, who has returned from the Great War with severe and life-changing injuries:
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow…..
(‘Disabled’, lines 1-3)
These few lines paint a melancholy picture, both of the extent of the soldier’s injuries (he appears to have lost at least three, and possibly four limbs), and also of his isolation – in describing him as ‘waiting for dark’ Owen suggests that he has nothing and no-one to distract him from his thoughts or to help him fill time.
As the poem continues, Owen builds upon the sense of loss and despair that he has created, leaving the reader in no doubt that, before the soldier received his injuries, his life had been full of excitement, promise, and hope:
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.
Since being invalided out of the army and sent back to hospital in Britain, however, the soldier’s prospects (particularly of being the object of a girl’s romantic desires) have vanished:
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.
These lines make it clear that Owen wants to show that enforced celibacy will now be the soldier’s lot, and that if anyone does look at him, it will only be as an object of pity. This impression is reinforced in the final lines of the poem:
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight, he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
Though this final stanza, like the rest of the poem, is extremely moving, it is also highly problematic. Owen portrays the soldier in such a way as to leave the reader in absolutely no doubt that, now he is disabled, all the things that made his life fulfilling and enjoyable are irretrievably lost.
There are two points to bear in mind here. Firstly, Owen himself had seen much front-line service, and furthermore he wrote ‘Disabled’ whilst a patient in a military hospital. Consequently, he would have been well aware of the kinds of life-changing injuries that soldiers invalided out of the Great War could receive.
Secondly, Owen was a highly political poet, who was – or who, at least, became – a passionate critic of the Great War. In his other poetry – most notably in works like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ – he raged against the lies that he insisted had induced young men in their millions to join the armed forces, to fight and die for their country.
One of Owen’s most famous pronouncements was ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity’. By this he meant that war was the ultimate evil, subverting all the values that human beings might hold dear – values such as goodness, justice, compassion.
In this way the maimed soldier in ‘Disabled’ is an emblematic figure – one who shows the terrible cost of war. But as Disability Studies academics and activists have shown, to afford disabled characters a purely emblematic status is both to shield oneself from the reality of continuing to live life and exist in the world with an impairment, and to adopt an overly fatalistic attitude to the difficulties – both physical and psychological – that someone with an impairment may experience.
Throughout the poem, for example, Owen impresses upon the reader the soldier’s isolation: he has no-one with him, he has no prospects, he will never be a husband or father, the only gazes he will attract will be ones of pity or embarrassment.
In this way Owen leaves the image of the maimed ex-soldier hanging, as if in aspic. He is a monument to Owen’s hatred of war, but he does not exist as a real human being. This squeamish refusal to consider how life might continue once someone has acquired a severe impairment arguably persists in our own times with the widespread support for assisted suicide, the adherents of which claim to be motivated by compassion and respect for personal freedom, but who may in reality be hampered by a refusal to consider seriously how life may be lived in a different way.