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The poem “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen was written during World War I in 1917. Owen writes from the perspective of a double-amputee veteran from whom the battlefield took away all appreciation for life. This persona decides to reflect upon the various reasons that made him enroll. In this poem, the persona presents the effects of war on young male adults sent to war: their loss of physical abilities, innocence and youth, as well as society’s insufficient recognition of their actions during the war. It could be suggested that the author is exploring the theme of the futility of war and critique of society. The universal theme embedded in the poem is the separation that war creates between those who stayed at home and those who fought: the so-called “two nation” effect. In order to convey these themes, the author employs structure, characterization, setting, contrasts and diction.
The title of the poem is significant and reveals the “two nations” theme. It is the disability of the figure that sets him apart from the others; it is the reason why he will never be able to feel the pleasures of life again. This is highlighted by the fact that “women’s eyes passed from him to the strong men that were whole” (line 44). The use of the word ‘whole’ implies that he sees himself as incomplete, less than a man. Furthermore, numerous body parts are integrated into the poem: “knees” (line 10), “hands” (line 12), “veins” (line 18), “thigh” (line 20) and “leg” (line 21). These words emphasize the figure’s desire for a ‘whole’ body. Nevertheless, it is important to note that he is not only isolated physically, but also mentally, as war has made him insensitive to the pleasures of life. This is revealed by the fact that the sounds of youth and vigor are described as “saddening like a hymn” (line 4). This idea of the everlasting effects of war on the mental health of soldiers is also presented by Owen in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” as the soldier who died in front of his eyes continues in all his “dreams” to “plunge[r] at [him], guttering, choking, drowning.”
The reference point of “you” used in “Disabled” reveals the theme of the “two-nations”. The persona uses the third personal pronoun, where a “nonparticipant” serves as the narrator: “He sat in a wheel chair” (line 1), something that distances the reader from the figure. This detachment between the veteran and the reader can be interpreted as the distance between those who fought and those who stayed at home. The narrator, nevertheless, seems to have insight into the character’s mind, as the whole poem has a tone of wistfulness and the persona knows his desire, expressed in the penultimate line: “why don’t they come And put him to bed” (line 45-46). Furthermore, it should be noted that this contrasts with other poems written by Owen as this poem is very personal. It focuses on one soldier’s story while others such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, compare soldiers to cattle such that soldiers are seen as undifferentiated masses.
The structure of “Disabled” reveals different stages of the figure’s life. In fact, the poem consists of seven stanzas which can be grouped to distinguish five stages of his life. Furthermore, the alternation between past and present narrative of the figure’s life reveals his longing for the life he had before losing his legs.
The first stanza introduces us to an alienated figure that represents what is left of the male youth after war. The persona creates this alienated figure through characterization and setting. The figure is “in a wheeled chair” (line 1), “legless” (line 3), “waiting for dark,” (line 1) dressed in a “ghastly suit of grey” (line 2). This portrayed figure evokes pity in the reader, as the man clearly does not feel any passion or joy for life: he is alienated by his physical disability, which is reinforced by the fact that his clothes are grey, and it appears that he is waiting for death. His isolation is highlighted by the words “dark”, “shivered”, “ghastly” and “grey”. Furthermore, the fact that he is “sewn short at elbow” leads the reader to question the conditions in which he lost his legs, evoking a sense of precaution and quickness. His physical description drastically contrasts with the setting surrounding him, further reinforcing his alienation. While he is described visually, the other persons are described orally: “voices of boys rang” (line 4) and “voices of play and pleasure” (line 5). The tone in which they are presented allows the readers to assume that, in the past, the subject had also been playing in the park with the other boys. The end of the first stanza invites the reader to accept the subject as being dependent on society and in search of protection as sleep “mothered” (line 6) him from the voices. This first stanza divulges the theme of the “two-nations” as war has made him disabled and alienated him from his surroundings.
In the second stanza, at first, the figure recalls when he was still part of society. This section clearly contrasts with the first stanza as the language changes from ominous to frivolous. This is highlighted by the use of alliteration between the words “glow-lamps” (line 8) and “girls glanced” (line 9), emphasizing the pace of the poem. His grey suit contrasts with the “light blue trees” (line 8). The figure’s reality is recalled in the line “before he threw away his knees” (line 10) in war. The use of the words “threw away” to describe the loss of his knees shows that he feels guilty and acknowledges his role in the loss of his legs. He describes what he considers as a symbol for the male youth sent to war lost: a life made of love and contentment. This is conveyed through a change in tactile imagery with girls: before the war, he felt “Girls waists” and “how warm their subtle hands” are (line 12), while now girls “touch him like some queer disease” (line 13). This underlines his isolation from society. Furthermore, it can be suggested that in line 13 the persona critiques society’s reaction towards disabled soldiers, as well as possibly revealing their implication in his current state.
The third stanza reveals that the veteran was “younger than his youth” (line 15) when sent to war. Yet, after one year in war, he became “old” (line 16), showing that war robbed him of his youth implying that his face is now older. In line 17 “He’s lost his color very far from here” closely followed by the words “shell-holes” is the first allusion to war in the poem. Later, he goes on to describe the “Fear” (line 32) he felt on the battlefield. Here the use of the capital letter reinforces the feeling through personification. This conveys the “two nations” theme, as the reader will not be able to understand this capitalized “Fear” unless he himself had served in a war. Owen wrote several poems on life in the trenches revealing the horror of war and the fear felt by soldiers. This was the case in the poem “The Sentry”.
The fourth and fifth stanzas reveal the figure’s motivations for joining the army. They are ecstasy after a victorious football game, “drunk a peg” (line 23) and “to please the giddy jilts” (line 27). The decision, hence, encloses a feeling of euphoria, rapidness and desire for success. Influenced by propaganda and pressure from society, the persona presents to us here, in fact, a possible scenario which reveals a lack of reasoning on his part. This is probably true for most soldiers. This is further emphasized by the statement “Germans he scarcely thought of” (line 30). Most of the soldiers in World War I believed that, by going to war, they would turn into heroic masculine figures with girls waiting at home for them. They never considered the full implications of their decision. The idea of these benefits is shattered in this poem, as the figure is anti-war and reveals the “truthful” effects of war: loss of youth and innocence, and helplessness. Finally, the persona criticizes the people in power for allowing him to enroll though he was underage. This is revealed in line 29 when “Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years”. In this line, the sadness of the soldier’s plight is heightened. His motivations underline the culpability of society for his choice, leading the reader to feel a sense of pity and compassion for the figure as he was simply too young and innocent to understand the full implications of his actions.
It is important to note that the persona uses an extended metaphor between the football game and war. This metaphor was quite popular at the time and commonly used by different poets, including Jessie Pope in the poem “Who’s for the game”. In this case, however, war does not turn out to be like a football game. This is highlighted by the fact that “he liked a blood-smear down his leg, after the matches, carried shoulder-high”. These injuries on the football pitch made him feel proud, masculine and heroic, as if he was celebrated by others. Yet, in the case of war, they conjecture a disgusting image, “leap of purple spurted from his thigh”. Hence, war, unlike a football game, is not fun and fair, and what is lost cannot be regained.
The persona introduces a three line stanza to create a transition between his promising past and his gloomy present. The soldier recalls when he returned home: “cheered” (line 37), but it was not the hero’s welcome he had imagined. Not even “as crowds cheer Goal” (Line 37), emphasizing by capitalizing the word “goal” what the figure lost by going to war. The reader is yet again encouraged to feel sorry for his decision and subsequent loss. Owen’s purpose is to show that the promises made to the soldiers are lies and that those who return from the war injured are detached from society, and pitied for their loss rather than being honored for their sacrifice as a man “inquired about his soul” (line 39). This is also presented in Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, where the honor and glory in dying for one’s country is referred to as “The Old Lie”.
The final stanza of the poem completes the circle by bringing the reader back to the figure’s present. This is underlined by the use of “Now” to start the paragraph, which results in a change in mood. The figure comes to the resolution that “he will spend a few sick years in Institutes / and do what things the rules consider wise” (lines 40-41). Demonstrating that he accepts and gives in to society pressure once more, becoming a passive young veteran who will forever be regarded as disabled. The figure has assumed his role as an object of pity taking whatever “pity they may dole,” (line 42), once more underpinning his isolation from society created by using the pronoun “they”, the nondisabled. The poem ends with an anxious plea: “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come/ And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?” (lines 45-46). The repetitions of the last line as well as the use of exclamation and question marks emphasize his passiveness and dependence on others. The reader pities the figure that is no longer self-sufficient and fears: the cold, desolate and lonely life awaiting him.
To conclude, the poem is undoubtedly revealing the “two nations” effect and forewarns future soldiers of the futility of war and the everlasting effects that it will have. The persona criticizes society for pressuring him to go while rejecting him later, when he comes back “disabled”. This is conveyed through Owen’s poignant use of structure, characterization, setting, contrasts and diction. The poem succeeds in conveying these messages to the reader in such a way that they feel obliged to respond and accept it as truthful. In my opinion, “Disabled” can be regarded as the epitome of anti-war poetry.
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