Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

A Critical Analysis of Wilfred Owen's "Disabled"

K.D. Laird
Email: aorys@yahoo.com

By Wilfred Owen
Published 1917/1918

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, —
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. — He wonders why.
Someone had said he's look a god in kilts,
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?

Wilfred Owen, a Soldier Poet who spent time in several military hospitals after being diagnosed with neurasthenia, wrote the poem "Disabled" while at Craiglockhart Hospital, after meeting Seigfried "Mad Jack" Sassoon. A look at Owen's work shows that all of his famed war poems came after the meeting with Sassoon in August 1917 (Childs 49). In a statement on the effect the Sassoon meeting had on Owen's poetry, Professor Peter Childs explains it was after the late-summer meeting that Owen began to use themes dealing with "breaking bodies and minds, in poems that see soldiers as wretches, ghosts, and sleepers" (49). "Disabled," which Childs lists because of its theme of "physical loss," is interpreted by most critics as a poem that invites the reader to pity the above-knee, double-amputee veteran for the loss of his legs, which Owen depicts as the loss of his life. An analysis of this sort relies heavily on a stereotypical reading of disability, in which "people with disabilities are more dependent, childlike, passive, sensitive, and miserable" than their nondisabled counterparts, and "are depicted as pained by their fate" (Linton, 1998, p. 25). Such a reading disregards not only the subject's social impairment, which is directly addressed by Owen, but it also fails to consider the constructed identity of the subject, as defined by the language of the poem.

A large reason for the imposition of pity comes from the pen of Owen, himself, who wrote that the chief concern in his poetry is "War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity" (Kendall, 2003, p. 30). Owen's pity approach to poetry succeeded in protesting the war because it capitalized on human losses. Adrian Caesar makes it very clear that the experience of war was Owen's reason for joining. Even after being hospitalized for neurasthenia, Owen chose to return to France because he knew his poetry had improved due to his experience in the trenches (Caesar, 1987, p. 79). Whatever the case, Owen had neurasthenia, or shell shock, a mental disability. "Disabled," which is about a veteran with a physical disability, should be viewed as an observation, and when the poem is closely examined, it can be seen to present a myth of disability rather than a realistic depiction.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a renowned literary critic in the field of Disability Studies, states that literary representation of disability has consistently marginalized characters with disabilities, which in turn facilitates the marginalization of actual people with disabilities. More often than not, writes Garland-Thomson, disability is utilized for its "rhetorical or symbolic potential" (1997, p. 15). When the reader considers Owen's quote about pity, taken along with his intent to protest the war, the disabled subject of his poem becomes little more than a poster-child for pacifism. Moreover, Owen's treatment of the subject exemplifies Garland-Thomson's conclusion that "When one person has a visible disability . . . it almost always dominates and skews the normate's process of sorting out perceptions and forming a reaction" (p. 12). The normate, or the nondisabled person, brings to the text a whole set of cultural assumptions, on which Owen depends, to leave the reader believing war is futile and not worth the cost in human lives and injuries. My purpose is not to argue to the contrary; I am not examining the value of war, but the devaluation of the disabled figure in Owen's poem.

"Disabled" consists of seven stanzas, which Daniel Pigg breaks down into five vignettes, representing the soldier's life. The first vignette, or first stanza, according to Pigg, "sets the stage for understanding this alienated figure that [the poet] observes" (1997, p. 92). Already the reader finds that the speaker occupies a privileged position, because he has no first-hand experience of what it is like to be an amputee and is merely an observer. The speaker sees a "legless" man, "waiting for dark," dressed in a "ghastly suit of gray" (Lines 1-3). This pathetic image proffered to the reader creates a relationship based on pity, meaning that the reader places a high value on his functioning body while devaluing the losses of the subject. "Waiting for dark" could be interpreted as waiting for death, and the "ghastly suit of gray" may as well be the vestige of a ghost. The subject, who is seated near a window, hears male children at play in the park, "saddening" him until sleep "mothered" the voices from him (Lines 4, 6). The reader is to assume, as Owen has assumed, that the subject is saddened by memories of times past, when he, too, would play in the park with the other boys. So is the reader to assume that "play and pleasure after day" (Line 5) are no longer available to the subject? The end of the first stanza invites the reader to accept the subject as being dependent and child-like, as sleep "mothered" him from the voices. Owen has effectively molded his subject into a convincing Other, a man near death and halfway into the grave.

The second vignette, or the second stanza, delves into the subject's past, when he was nondisabled. As a contrast to the first stanza, where the language and imagery is bleak and foreboding, the second stanza begins with colorful images of the town, before the subject acquired his injury. However, the jubilee is short-lived as the reader is soon thrust back into the subject's present reality, after he "threw away his knees" (Line 10). In this line the reader becomes aware that the subject feels a certain amount of guilt and self-acknowledgment in the role he has played in the loss of his legs. But before exploring the subject's motives for joining the war, the reader is treated again to Owen's dreary outlook on the veteran's life. This time, the discussion is centered on women and how the subject will no longer be able to enjoy their presence or company, for girls now "touch him like some queer disease" (Line 13).

Pigg's analysis of the word "queer" is worth noting because he uses it as an example of the subject's social displacement. It is in the second stanza that the reader is first encouraged to consider not just the physical impairment, but the social impairment of the subject. Pigg shows that early usage of the word "queer" to denote homosexuality began officially in a 1922 document written by the government. Based on this finding, Pigg assumes that the word could have been known and used by popular culture as early as 1917, when Owen's poem was penned (1997, p. 91). Pigg claims that Owen's use of the term illustrates a "loss of potential heterosexual contact," while at the same time expressing that "society has made him what he has become . . . the use of the concept in the poem makes one more aware of oppression in a society that has brought the soldier to this state" (p. 91). Even though Pigg analyzes the social construction of the subject's identity, he limits his discussion to society's role in pressuring the soldier to join the war and not with the systematic oppression of disability, the result of the subject joining the war. However, this subject is best represented by Owen's final two stanzas.

In the next section of the poem, Owen reiterates the format of the previous stanza by giving the reader a glimpse of the subject's "normal" life, before becoming an amputee, when his youth and vitality were admired by an artist. Very quickly the reader is transported back to the veteran's present situation. This juxtaposition of normal/abnormal within the stanzas "forces an 'us and them' division" between the reader and the subject (Linton, 1998, p. 23). The remembrances of the subject offer an illustration of a typical life with which the reader can relate, which is then placed next to lines of the poem that offer a picture of what Owen would hope the reader to define as a horrible existence worse than death. The subject, which is an actual person, becomes Owen's mascot for the anti-war effort.

The next three stanzas of the poem discuss the subject's reasons for entering the war. Again, Pigg offers an interesting interpretation of this section of the poem. According to Pigg, the subject joins the war in an effort to create an identity for himself, an identity which is ultimately based on a lie about his age. In lines 21-29, the subject reminisces about the time he decided to join the war and tries to pinpoint which intoxication lead him to such a decision: a victorious football game, a brandy and soda, or the "giddy jilts"? In each case there is an overabundance of ego involved; the subject seeks to capitalize on his ephemeral successes and perpetuate them as long as possible. In joining the war, he sees a way to do this, because society identifies those who go to war as heroes and those who do not as less than men. The subject decides it is a girl named Meg he tried to impress, then says "Aye . . . to please the giddy jilts" (Line 27). A "jilt" is a capricious woman, a woman who is unpredictable and impulsive. Owen's point here is to allow the reader omniscient knowledge of the subject and his belief that the girls will love you for going to war, but if you return with a substantial injury, they become uninterested. This suggests that the girls are more interested in the idea of the soldier, the perfect body, as opposed to the reality of the soldier. Lines 30-36 further explain the subject's reasons for enlistment, stating that they were not because of an interest in foreign affairs, but for the superficial benefits of joining the military.

Owen then inserts a small, three-line stanza as a transition from the subject's memories to his current status. Again, the reader is jarred by the juxtaposition of the normal and the abnormal. Instead of receiving a hero's welcome, the subject is patronized by his own memories of what he had imagined his return to England would be like: "Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal" (Line 37). The irony re-enlists the help of pity, as the reader is encouraged to feel sorry for the subject's decision and subsequent loss. Owen's purpose is to show that those who return from the war injured are pitied for their loss, rather than being honored for their sacrifice.

The final stanza of the poem completes the circle that brings the reader back to the subject's self-dissolution. He has accepted society's estimation of his worth, or lack thereof, and has resigned himself to "spend a few sick years in institutes/ and do what things the rules consider wise" (Lines 40-41). The passive young veteran has acquiesced his life without a fight, but will continue to follow the orders of a society that deems him as invalid. He has officially become disabled, in every sense of the word. The subject has assumed his role as an object of pity and is ready to take whatever pity "they may dole," "they" being the nondisabled (Line 42). Before the poem ends, though, Owen returns the reader yet again to the "giddy jilts" and their capricious desires, as their eyes avoid the subject's changed body to look at the men who are still "whole," suggesting it was not just the soldier they were interested in, but the idealized standard of beauty (Line 44). Here, the reader is expected to remember the subject's reasons for joining the military. The subject's concern with maintaining a nadir of masculinity and sexual attraction is ironically juxtaposed with his total loss of sexuality, which Owen implies is a total loss of identity, except as a spectacle and object of pity. The poem ends with the speaker's frantic 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 speaker epitomizes the nondisabled person's fear over lack of control of their own bodies and fates. The speaker realizes that he could just as easily be in the position of the subject, and with this knowledge the speaker agonizes over his own projected fears: the cold, desolate, and lonely life of the subject. We will never know the subject's reality, for Owen has locked him into an eternal battle with despair.

Owen uses "compassionate imagination" to establish a link between the soldier and the civilian in an effort to express the abominable losses that come as a result of war (Norgate, 1987, p. 21). Unfortunately, in so doing Owen magnifies the inferior role disability occupies in society, rather than calling it into question. That which has been given up and that which has been taken away subsumes the identity of the subject. Owen's one-dimensional representation of disability ignores the will to survive and make the most of the opportunities offered by life, in whatever form it may take. Thompson writes, "As physical abilities change, so do individual needs, and the perception of those needs" (14). In "Disabled," Owen does not allow for change and does not offer the hope of a fulfilling life. Instead, he delivers a scathing portrait of physical and social disablement in early 20th-century England.

Works Cited

Caesar, A. (1987). The 'human problem' in Wilfred Owen's Poetry. Critical Quarterly 29/2, pp. 67-84.

Childs, P. (1999). The Twentieth Century in Poetry: A Critical Survey. London: Routledge.

Garland-Thomson, R. (1997). Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kendall, T. (2003, Sept-Oct.). The Pity of War. PN Review 30/1, pp. 30-32.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. NY: New York University Press.

Norgate, P. (1987, Spring). Shell-shock and Poetry: Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Hospital. English 36, pp. 1-35.

Pigg, D. F. (1997, Winter). Owen's 'Disabled.' Explicator 55/2, pp. 91-95.