Wilfred Owen's Disabled Analysis



Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled” tells the poignant story of an injured soldier who “threw away his knees” on the battlefield and is now hospitalised in his “wheeled chair”, listening to the distant “voices of play and pleasure” coming from the “park” where he was once “carried high” for scoring a goal in a football match. He is left “waiting for dark” when the nurses will lift him into bed so he can sleep.

The poem laments the innocence of the young boys who naively went off to fight for their country only to discover the true horror of war in the “shell-holes” of France.


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’d 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?


The title focuses the reader’s attention towards the young soldier’s horrific physical injuries. He needs to sit in a “wheeled chair” because he lost his legs and forearms fighting on the front line. The reference to his “legless” body is particularly shocking. Owen highlights the word by placing it at the start of the line and the inventive use the negative suffix.

This horrible image is immediately followed by the description of his arms “sewn short at the elbow”. The violence of the verb “sewn” is disturbing and suggests the surgeons were unable to stop the “leap of purple” when it “squirted from his thigh” so they had to amputate. The poet emphasises the image through the use of alliteration in “sewn short” and by stressing both of the syllables.

The reader is reminded of his appalling injuries in the second verse when we are told “he threw away his knees”. Of course, the nonchalance of the verb “threw” is a criticism of the futility of war, but the phrase is also very shocking.

The young soldier, who “lied” that he was “aged nineteen years”, is now “old” and “his back will never brace”. With his broken back and loss of limbs, he needs the nurses to help him into bed.

There is no doubt that Owen’s vivid depiction of the “disabled” soldier exposes the brutal reality of warfare.

In The Old Times

Throughout the poem, Wilfred Owen juxtaposes images of the soldier before and after his life-changing injuries. By creating such dramatic contrasts, the poet demonstrates the awful horror of war and its terrible impact on the “young recruits” who were “drafted out with drums and cheers”.

References to the soldier being lifted is perhaps the most distressing contrast. In the fourth verse, there is the triumphant image of him being “carried shoulder high” by his teammates and spectators after their victory. Then, at the end of poem, he waits quietly for the nurses to carry him to bed. They lifted him to celebrate a goal but not to let him sleep. He has now been forgotten and abandoned.

Another disturbing example of antithesis is the contrast in aural imagery. In the first verse, there are the “voices of boys” and “voices of play and pleasure” coming “through the park”. Owen emphasises the noisy joy through the repetition of “voices”, the alliteration of /p/ in “play” and “pleasure”, and the child-like rhythm created by the internal rhyme of “play” and “day”. In the fourth verse, there are also the loud “drums and cheers” when the soldiers are being marched off to war.

In contrast to the exuberant noise of the past, the valiant soldier is now alone in the hospital, sitting in silence and waiting for the nurses to come. He used to be surrounded by the comradery of his teammates and the “Esprit de corps” of the army, but now he is alone.

In the second verse, e are told the soldier “will never feel again how slim / Girls’ waists are”. It seems he was friendly and flirty with the girls, especially when they “glanced lovelier as the air grew dim”. By contrast, they now “touch him like some queer disease”. Their grim curiosity adds yet another heartache to his situation, but he is so lonely he will “take whatever pity they may dole”.

In the second line, Owen mentions how the soldier “shivered” and the penultimate line refers to the “cold” hospital. He is trembling because it is cold but also because he is scared. This bleak outlook contrasts with the excitement of holding the girls’ “warm” and “subtle hands”.

The soldier’s clothing offers another interesting contrast. In the hospital, he is dressed in a “ghastly suit of grey”. This dreadful colour, emphasised by the alliteration of the hard /g/, is very different to the wonderful colour of the “kilts” and “plaid socks” he wore in the army. As the poem states, he “lost his colour”. He used to be “younger than his youth”, but now he is “old” and “grey”.

His life has changed from the laws of football and “smart salutes” of the army, to the “rules” he has to follow in the “institutions”.

Of course, there is also the bitter contrast between the Scottish soldier being “cheered home” having been seriously injured “very far from here”. It is incredibly sad that he fought in a foreign land against an enemy “he scarcely thought of”.

Owen presents all of these changes to the soldier’s life to show the reader the disgraceful destruction and misery caused by war.


The sickening description of the soldier’s trauma is in stark contrast to the physical strength he had “in the old times” before he walked into the conscription office and volunteered to fight. This vigour is epitomised by the image of him being “carried shoulder high” after a football game. It seems he was the much-admired hero of the match and scored the winning goal.

Owen echoes this image of celebration in the penultimate verse when he describes how some people “cheered him home” from the war “but not as crowds cheer Goal.” There is no longer any sense of victory.

The soldier was also attractive looking. This is made clear at the start of the third verse when the speaker mentions that “there was an artist silly for his face” because “it was younger than his youth”. There was a time when he was physically close to girls but now “he will never feel again how slim girls’ waists are”.

Sadly, he “lost his colour” and vitality in the battlefields of France.


Sitting in his “wheeled chair” and listening to the “voices of boys” coming from the “park”, the soldier “wonders why” he joined the army. We are told it was “after football” and he had “drunk a peg” when he made the decision to enlist.

The young soldier was ignorant of the global politics that led to the war. He “scarcely thought of” the Germans and their “guilt”, and the Austrians “did not move him”.

Instead of patriotic enthusiasm or any moral imperative, he volunteered to “please his Meg”. He believed he would “look a god in kilts” with “jewelled hilts” and “daggers in plaid socks”. The wonderful dress and colours of the Scottish regiments appealed to his vanity rather than a sense of duty.

Unfortunately, he thought the war was going to be just like a game of football.

Narrative Voice and Context

Focusing firmly on the injured soldier and his desperate situation, “Disabled” seems to be written as a third-person narrative. The very first word is the third-person pronoun “he”, which is then repeated throughout the story along with the variations “him” and “his”.

However, there are several moments when the tone shifts into a different point of view. For example, consider the following three lines from the middle of the fourth verse:

“That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join.”

After suggesting the soldier enlisted because of the elation he felt winning a football match and celebrating with a shot of whiskey, the speculative adverb “maybe” and the assertive phrase “that was it” create a more conversational tone with the reader.

The adverb “aye” is certainly more typical of a first-person perspective or a self-conscious narrator.

This interpretation is reinforced by the final two lines of the poem:

“How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?”

The exclamative, written in the present tense, suddenly positions the reader in the “cold” hospital as if we have been watching him sitting in his wheelchair. In fact, the speaker could be another veteran who is showing us the anguish of the “disabled” soldier.

Importantly, Wilfred Owen was caught in the blast of a mortar bomb, left unconscious and, subsequently, suffered serious shell-shock. He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to recuperate. It was a specialist institution which treated officers until they were, in Owen’s words, “dangerously well” enough to return to the front lines. This is where he wrote “Disabled”. Stressing the importance of this particular poem, he even considered calling his new collection “Disabled and Other Poems”.

In this way, the poet could be pleading directly to the public to not ignore the true horror of war and the personal suffering of each and every soldier who was fighting.

The two interrogatives and use of repetition at the end of the poem do create a devastating tone of despair and sadness which evokes a tremendous amount of sympathy from the reader.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Look through the first six lines of this poem. Describe the young man’s injuries?
  2. In line five, the “voices of play” are the voices of children playing in the park. What would the disabled soldier be thinking as he heard them play?
  3. What impression of the young man is created in lines 7 – 10?
  4. In your own words, describe how do girls treat the young man?
  5. Look at line twenty-two. Before this young man entered the army he enjoyed football. Why would he be carried shoulder-high after a match?
  6. Which word in line twenty-five tell us that this young man joined a Scottish regiment?
  7. What lie did he tell in line 29?
  8. How did the young man feel during his army training?
  9. What sort of welcome did the young man receive when he returned?
  10. Where will the young man live for the next “few sick years”?
  11. Why does Wilfred Owen repeat the phrase “why don’t they come”?
  12. Write a paragraph describing the thoughts which go through this young man’s mind as he waits for the nurses to take him in and put him into bed.

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