Disabled by Owen
This is a particularly disturbing poem. Its success lies in Owen’s ability to take an unusual scenario to make a point. It explores the motivation to enlist for the war, the naivety, and the lure of what a uniform means and how he lost his sense of ‘doing it for the uniform’. The poem emphasises the persona’s uncertainty of the future. It has an overwhelming sense of pathos (sadness) as the reason for going to war were not realised (the women, the glory, the euphoria, the ‘sport’). He is now completely helpless. He has been physically and mentally damaged – and has become someone waiting for someone to come and put him to bed (waiting to end it all?).
It attacks the myth of the returning war hero. The persona leaves with cheers but returns to very little and certainly has no fanfare from the ‘solemn man’ who meets him on return. It is also about the loss individuals had to bear – the loss of mobility, the loss of freedom, the loss of respect, the loss of a future. This is especially emphasised in the final two lines.
Owen begins with an anonymous ‘He’ so it can be any young man who goes to war. This makes the sentiment behind the poem even more universal and can be related to any war. We also know the man is injured because of the words ‘wheeled chair’. He waits for nothing but ‘dark’. We soon learn he is badly injured,
‘Legless, sewn short at elbow’
In this stanza, we also see ‘dark’ and ‘grey’ setting up a sense of loneliness and isolation reinforced by the word ‘shivered’. He hears from the ‘park’ the voices of boys playing but to him, they are ‘like a hymn’ to him because it reminds him of his past and how bleak his future is. The stanza ends with dusk coming on as the children are ‘mothered’ in.
In this stanza, Owen sets the mood of the poem with its bleak appraisal of the soldier and his shattered body. For him, there is no brightness and we get the impression he is depressed.
The soldier thinks back to the past when he could look forward to this part of the day when the ‘Town’ was filled with fun and he could enjoy life. Here Owen uses alliteration with ‘girls glanced’. Note also how the hyphen at the end of the line is used to signal a change in tone. This happy memory cannot last he has to think about now because of his injuries. He thinks back ‘before he threw away his knees’ but now he cannot even hold a woman as he has lost his arm. He also knows that they will shun him because of his injuries as he is ‘like some queer disease’. Again Owen shows us the waste of war with the words, ‘threw away’ and the long-term effect on the soldier. Owen shows us that he has psychological as well as physical injuries.
This stanza begins by telling us how much the war and its effects have changed the young man and his once youthful face is now ‘old’ and it has taken about a year. Not only has he lost his youth and innocent view of the world but,
‘He’s lost his colour very far from here,’
and this creates an image of him giving blood for us in war. These images give us an idea of how his wounds occurred as the shells exploded his blood ‘spurted from his thigh’. This could be seen as a sexual image but instead of a life-giving spurt, he has given his blood so ironically he can never have a woman. Another irony is that we learn later that he joined to please his girlfriend.
Owen always uses graphic imagery to convey the reality of war and this stanza is clearly designed to do this.
This stanza takes us back to when he joined up and is linked by the idea of blood. On the sporting field, a ‘bloodsmear’ could make you a hero. We get an image of him here being carried off the field a hero – ironically now he cannot walk and has to be carried everywhere. In the euphoria of his sporting heroics and a few drinks he decides to join up because of vanity, ‘a god in kilts’; because it would ‘please his Meg’ and the ‘giddy jilts’ which is a Scottish term for young woman. These Scottish images lead us to believe he was in one of the regiments from Scotland. The poor young man was even under-age,
‘Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years’
This gives us a good indication that he is indeed still very young and joined for silly, childish reasons. Now he has returned a cripple they all seem so puerile. This idea is reinforced in the next stanza.
This stanza tells us that when he joined he hadn’t even thought of the enemy or why they may be fighting them. He hadn’t even considered the consequences of his actions so he had no ‘Fear’. Note how Owen capitalizes the word to make it a real, living thing. The young man had only thought about the nice things he knew about war like the uniform, pay, leave and the ‘Espirit de corps’. He was even sent away with ‘drums and cheers’.
This final stanza gives a lovely contrast with the reality of what he had to face. With a reminder of the football hero scene in stanza four, this is a nice juxtaposition. Here no one cheers his even greater sacrifice but one ‘solemn man’. What is left for him but ‘institutes’ and becoming passive and institutionalised. He has no choice as war has taken away his mobility and arm. He sees the looks of pity and can do nothing. He has lost his allure to women – now they take him to bed as less than a man when once he would have taken them. They want ‘strong men that were whole’.
The final two lines remind us of how helpless he is. The shiver in line 2 of the opening stanza is linked to ‘cold’ here and all he can do is question, ‘Why don’t they come?’ He can do nothing for himself and is reduced to waiting on the whim of others. Owen reminds us that his future is bleak, each day will be like this and it is the high cost of war; Again he reinforces the idea of senseless waste.