The man sits in his wheelchair waiting for nightfall. He is chilled in his gray suit which is legless and sewn at the elbows. Boys' voices ring out in the park; the voices are of "play and pleasure" that echo until sleep takes them away from him.
Around this time the town used to be lively, with lamps in the trees and girls dancing in the dim air. These were the old days before "he threw away his knees". He will no longer have the chance to put his arms around girls' slim waists or feel their warm hands. They look at him like he has a strange disease. Last year there was an artist that wanted to depict his youth, but now he is old. His back will not "brace" and he gave up his color in a land very far from here. He let it drain into "shell-holes" until it was all gone. Half of his life is now passed from that "hot race", when a spurt of purple burst from his thigh.
One time before the war he saw a blood smear on his leg and thought it looked like the "matches carried shoulder-high". He had been drinking after football and he thought he might as well sign up for war. Besides, someone had told him he would look like a god in kilts. This is why he joined the war, and it was also for Meg.
It was easy for him to join. He lied about his age – said he was nineteen – and they cheerfully wrote it down. He was not yet thinking of Germans or "fears / of Fear". All he thought about were "jewelled hilts" and "daggers in plaid socks" and "smart salutes" and "leave" and "pay arrears". Soon he was drafted, and the air was filled with "drums and cheer". Only one serious man who brought him fruit asked him about his soul.
Now, after war, he will spend his time in the Institutes, doing what he should do and accepting whatever pity the rulers want to give him. This evening he saw the women's eyes pass over him to gaze on the strong men with whole bodies. He wonders why they do not come and put him to bed since it is so cold and late.
"Disabled" is one of Owen's most disturbing and affecting poems. It was written while he was convalescing at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh after sustaining injuries on the battlefield, and was revised a year later. This work was the subject of Owen's initial relationship to poet Robert Graves. Owen wrote to his mother on October 14th, 1917, saying, "On Sat. I met Robert Graves...showed him my longish war-piece 'Disabled'...it seems Graves was mightily impressed and considers me a kind of Find!! No thanks, Captain Graves! I'll find myself in due time." A few days later Graves expanded his critique, telling Owen it was a "damn fine poem" but said that his writing was a bit "careless". Graves's comment may derive from the fact that there are many irregularities of stanza, meter, and rhyme in "Disabled".
In the first stanza the young soldier is depicted in a dark, isolated state as he sits in his wheelchair. Almost immediately the reader learns that the soldier has lost his legs in a battle. Owen casts a pall over this young man with the depiction of sad voices of boys echoing throughout the park, perhaps as they echoed on the battlefield. The voices throw him back into his memories, which is what will constitute the rest of the poem until the last few lines. Words such as "waiting" and "sleep" reinforce the sense that this soldier's life is interminable to him now.
In the second stanza the soldier reminisces about the old days before the war. He conjures up sights and sounds of lamps and dancing girls before he bitterly remembers that he will not get to experience a relationship with a woman now; they look at him as if he has a "queer disease". It is not explicitly stated that the soldier, like Ernest Hemingway's Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, suffers from impotency deriving from his war accident, but it is possible that this is also the case. The soldier feels emasculated, ignored, almost betrayed by women.
In the third stanza the recollections continue, with the soldier musing on the happy days of yore. He used to be young and handsome and an artist wanted to draw his face. Last year he possessed youth, he says, but he no longer does - the soldier "lost his colour very far from here / Poured it down shell-holes until veins ran dry". Another famous WWI poet, C. Day Lewis, said this line possesses "deliberate, intense understatements – the brave man's only answer to a hell which no epic words could express" and is "more poignant and more rich with poetic promise than anything else that has been done during this century." In the fourth stanza the boy also recalls that he was a football hero, and that once a "blood-smear" on his leg sustained in a game was a badge of honor. This is in stark contrast to his war wounds, which are shameful. He explains the almost casual way he decided to go to war – after a game, when he was drunk, he thought he ought to enlist. Swayed by a compliment and a girl named Meg, his justification for going to war illustrates his youthful ignorance and naïveté is in full effect.
In the fifth stanza he says that he lied about his age to get into the military, and gave nary a thought to Germans or fear. All he thought about was the glory and the uniforms and the salutes and the "esprit de corps". This young man could have been almost any young man from any country involved in the war, who, possessing such youth and lack of worldly wisdom, did not think too deeply about what war really meant and what could happen to his life. Owen is obviously sympathetic to the soldier's lack of understanding, but he is also angry about "the military system that enabled the soldier to enlist through lying about his age". Owen is careful to balance "the immaturity of the soldier...with anger at the view of war as glamorous, a view held by both the soldier before the war and by much of the public throughout."
In the sixth stanza a curious encounter occurs on the boy's way to war – one man who is cheering him on is "solemn" and takes the time to inquire about his soul. It does not seem like the boy took the time to wonder too deeply about this at the time, but the encounter is a foreshadowing of the difficulties to come.
In the seventh stanza the soldier comes back to the present, realizing the bleakness of his future. He knows that he will be in and out of institutes and hospitals, and will have to suffer through the pity of those in power that put him in danger in the first place. What exacerbates his situation is the continued slights from women, who look past him like he is invisible to men that are "whole". The poem ends on a sad and mundane note as the young man wonders why "they" do not come and put him to bed. It is a reminder that he will have to have others do things for him from now on. His days of autonomy, and, of course, glory, are clearly over. The poem is about one soldier, but what makes it so compelling and relevant is its universal quality.
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.