Disabled – Wilfred Owen
This poem was written when Owen was in Craiglockhart War Hospital. He was there while being treated for shell shock and would have seen many young soldiers maimed for life. It was commonplace for teenagers to lie about their age in order to get conscripted into the services. Many youngsters were keen for a piece of action after seeing notices asking for volunteers. Disenchantment did not take long in coming. The abysmal conditions in the trenches, disease and the bone chilling cold broke even strong spirits. Added to these were the ever present danger to limb and life.
This is a young soldier, younger that most, for he had lied about his age in order to join the army. He has now been maimed and he finds that life is passing him by. He can’t do any of the things he used to do and he wallows in self pity. The girls don’t feel comfortable with him and he misses his old life. He had taken good health for granted. He remembers the life he led until a short while ago. The good things of life were his to enjoy. Now he waits for the days to come to a close and welcomes night.
This poem is about the feelings of a man who loses a limb in war. He is now confined to a wheelchair and misses the life he led when he was complete. People treat him differently now, especially the women. This soldier is very young; in his enthusiasm to join up, he had lied about his age. Now he has his life stretching in front of him, meaningless. His attitudes have changed over time; he has lost his machismo, in fact he feels emasculated especially when girls keep a distance from him. They prefer men who are whole.
The poem opens with the soldier sitting outside may be in a park or garden waiting for night to fall. He listens to the voices of boys at the end of the day only he has nothing to look forward to except night and sleep. Life is a terrible drag for him with no cheer permeating it.
A flood of memories of life before he lost his legs come in. Late evenings were the best part of day. The town used to be lit up like a fairyland and he had girls for company. When he danced with them he could feel their slim waists but now they keep away him from as though he has a strange disease.
Just a year has passed by but what a year it has been! His face, which was so handsome that artists wanted to paint it has lost its color and become pale. This happened when he was grievously injured. “Poured it down the shell holes till it ran dry” the poet says with masterly brevity, of bleeding heavily. That single moment aged him and robbed vitality from his face.
Once upon a time he wore the same blood as though it was a badge of honor. With pride he displayed the wound he had received during a match. It was after a football match that he had casually decided to join up; he is not even sure why he took that decision. Was it because he had had a drink or had he been swayed by a compliment or was it to impress a girl named Meg? She had not been worth it, unfaithful as she was. He claimed to be nineteen and the authorities accepted that lie.
Once in the army, he had not known fear or been worried about the Germans. For him the smart uniform and the glory of being in the army had been enough. He valued the camaraderie in the army and also thought he could earn a good pay. With just cursory training, he was kitted out and sent off to the front with a band playing jaunty music.
There were cheers but they were not as lusty as the ones after he had scored a goal in a football match. Strangely, a man came up to thank him and enquired after his soul.
In this last stanza he contemplates his bleak future. He will undergo rehabilitation in various institutes, accept whatever decision is made for him and suffer the pity that is doled out. Even that may not amount to much. Every day he notices how women ignore him, their eyes seeking out healthy men who are perfect in limbs. As he waits for the staff to wheel him inside he realizes it cold and late. They seem to have forgotten him.
Unlike most of Owen’s other poetry, this one does not deal with the untimely death of soldiers. But this poem is bleaker as the prospect of suffering is lifelong. The teenaged soldier has lost his legs in a blast and has not much to look forward to. He feels neglected and overlooked.