The depiction of Suffering in Disabled by Wilfred Owen

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Wilfred Owen’s poem Disabled forms a narrative following an unnamed soldier through six stanzas, containing vignettes of fragments from his life, contrasting his consciousness, and therefore knowledge, throughout. Focusing on the consequences of war, Owen concentrates on the hope and purity of the young soldier before, to juxtapose with the destruction of this, him now being ‘disabled’, this label forming his identity. This central idea of the poem is heightened by it not only being portrayed from the perspective of the soldier, but also how others view him, primarily women- this determining his worth.
From the first line of the poem, Disabled, Owen emphasises the soldier’s isolation; ‘waiting for dark’, suggests that he has no distraction from his own thoughts and thus the narrator portrays the lack of value he gives his life, not waiting for morning, a new day, but instead ‘dark’, conveying the futility of life following war. Owen further heightens the idea of soldiers being trapped in between life and death, even once the war is over, by referring to the ‘ghastly suit of grey’ that this soldier wears, ‘ghastly’ similar to ‘ghostly’, with connotations of death, but not quite, echoing his borderline existence. In the last stanza, Owen describes the soldier as not being ‘whole’, forming the idea that his life is not able to reach the full capacity that other men possess, as well as his physical impairment. Owen stresses the necessity for an ending in the repetition of ‘why don’t they come?’ when the soldier wants to be put ‘into bed’, perhaps also implying the control of a higher power over his life, as well as the soldier’s mere lack of autonomy or capability to look after himself. This idea of sleep, beginning the poem and ending it, is portrayed to be a solace, a sense of finality for the soldier, and yet the repetition on the last line suggests a continuous cycle of routine, Owen potentially communicating that war never leaves anyone.

Owen depicts the control that war inflicts over an individual, by providing the opposite, that the soldier willingly ‘threw away his knees’, ‘poured [‘his colour’] down shell holes’. By placing the fault on the victim, whilst also juxtaposing this, portraying his innocence, ‘his face/younger than his youth’, Owen depicts this soldier, in addition to the many other young soldiers, as victims of war, and the military system which thrived on their youthful ignorance and naivete.

This portrayal is heightened by Owen’s comparisons of war to a game throughout Disabled. In the third stanza he describes war as a ‘hot race’, the thrill and speed within this strengthened by the sibilant sounds provided by ‘race’ and ‘brace’, three lines above, and yet this is starkly by the disparity in meaning conveyed in both of these lines, ‘race’, of exuberant energy and ‘back will never brace’, of inability, both figuratively and literally. In the fourth stanza, Owen illustrates the nostalgic image of a football game, and the sense of achievement in injury as the soldier is ‘carried shoulder-high’, which he later, in stanza five, contrasts to the few that ‘cheered him home’; the soldier reflects on this not being ‘as crowds cheer goal’. Similarly, instead of a sense of honor following injury, he is viewed as ‘some queer disease’, immediately conveying the poignant difference in the games of youth and war, despite the soldier initially viewing it only within his own boundaries of knowledge.

The nature in which this soldier decides to go to war, and many others joining in groups such as pals battalions or under the influence of others, is criticised by Owen, especially in the casual and childish nature that this soldier’s priority is to ‘please’ others, which is repeated, rather than think for himself, as he does now, in the present that Owen is using to contrast, as ‘he wonders why’. Yet, Owen is in fact more strongly criticising the military system which allows war to be a conversation of childish banter and drunkenness, and furthermore allows young men to ‘lie’ about their ages, as Owen depicts them to do ‘smiling’. The quick change in the young man’s idea of war is exemplified not only in the language and shift between past and present throughout the poem, but in the switch between a regular ABAB rhyme scheme at the beginning of the poem to one more irregular, making a rhyme every three lines in some cases. This, as well as the extra feet in many lines, destructing the regular iambic pentameter, perhaps, exemplifies the breakdown of expectations, and of course, mind and body. Thus, Owen communicates the inability of young men to know better, and therefore portrays their vulnerability to the unjust military system which cares little about the promising lives of young men and instead feeds off them and their youthful ignorance.

Contrasting this waste of life, Owen focuses on the hope that these soldiers, when young, possess, in his vivid description of ‘town’ as it ‘swing[s]’, yet the ‘glow-lamps budded in/ light blue trees’ suggest a layer of artifice to their existence, Owen also criticizing the idea that purpose and quality of life for young men is defined by the presence and favor of women. In the second stanza, Owen depicts the promising, blooming life as one consisting of ‘girls’ that ‘glanced lovelier as the air grew dim’, the repetition of the ‘l’ sound as well as assonance suggesting a sense of playful indulgence, and yet a repulsion towards their shifting, and seemingly shallow, attitudes towards men, and the effect that this has on them, is displayed in the contrast between describing their hands as ‘warm’ and ‘subtle’ and then touching the soldier ‘like some queer disease’, a complete opposition in meaning and sound. Owen returns this theme at the end of the poem also, as the thought that results in the soldier only wanting to sleep is the ‘women’s eyes’ passing ‘from him to strong men that were whole’. Despite love and care clearly being significant for soldiers, especially when returning home and finding no respite, Owen, perhaps, dislikes women for increasing the struggle placed upon them by war alone, particularly due to the part that ‘pleas[ing]’ them had on his volunteering. and the necessity they have within a man’s happiness. Therefore, this poor representation of women potentially both reflects the soldier’s disappointment and Owen’s dislike in their ability to cause it.
Having no attention from women, also, perhaps, reinforces the soldiers’ lack of identity due to injury. In the first line of Disabled the first detail the reader learns about the man is that he sits ‘in a wheeled chair’, as if this is the most important part of his identity, all he is now. This stark realization is at the heart of the poem, returning throughout; he is also described as a ‘queer disease’, something inhuman, an irregularity in society, and Owen portrays ‘his colour’, perhaps happiness or personality, to have been ‘poured/down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, implying that his life, and within this his identity, has been lost in the formation of his injuries.

Consequently, this soldier, and many others are defined by their impairment, this which Owen emphasizes to be an inevitable outcome of war through the lack of name and universal quality to the situations that he paints this soldier in with each stanza. This poem is titled ‘Disabled’, immediately defining the soldier’s identity to be a consequence of war, a label under which nearly all survivors will fit under, inevitably hindered mentally or physically in some way. By doing this, Owen is highlighting the consequences of war, not just in injury, but how this affects the value of soldiers’ lives. Owen suggested naming his collection of war poetry ‘Disabled and Other Poems’, which would emphasize the inexorable impairment of war on all as a cause of the assault on innocence by those in power, regardless of the individual accounts and themes explored in other poems: the poem ‘Disabled’ crucially encompasses the suffering of all.

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