Monday, June 24, 2013

Disabled by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Disabled’ explores the evil effects of war on soldiers, who are involved in fighting in the battlefield comparing the present life of an injured soldier to his past aspirations and accomplishments.

“He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,

Legless, sewn short at elbow,”

The first stanza starts with the above lines with a depressing account of an isolated person sitting in a wheelchair, in a park, being unable to walk or indulge in any of the activities involving exercise going around him. His is formally dressed, nonetheless his suit is cut at the waist, which indicates that he has lost his both legs, and he waits helplessly, listening to the voices of the young children, who are playing around him. This really saddens him, as they remind him of something he can never gain again.
He remembers his past life, which was full of delight and beauty before he was confronted with this mishap.  By this time of the night, after the work had been done for the day, the town had come to life at night. He remembers how the streets used to light up and how the girls would become more inviting and alluring. He regrets losing his legs, for he knows that he will never again dance holding a woman, or feel their soft slight touches, as they now only touch him out of pity, like as if he is a strange abnormality in their normal life.
He remembers once there was such vitality, such sheer life in him that an artist had been insistent on drawing his face, for just a year ago, it spoke of innocence and clarity of heart. But now his face has become withered with experience and sorrow, and he can’t even support himself, both literally and figuratively. He has become pale, as if all his life had been leached out of him through the wound on his thighs, and he feels that half of his life is already over.
He remembers how before he had become disabled, he had been a renowned football player, and had been proud of the blood smear on his leg which had resulted from a match, and how the crowd had carried him on their shoulders, celebrating his valor and excellence. It was after such a match itself that, drunk on alcohol, pride and his success, he had thought first of enlisting in the army, just to appear more manlike to the ladies as someone had suggested he would look dashing in a uniform. Thus out of mere pride and vanity, had he joined the war, even going as far as to lie about his age: a fact that shows one that the ex-soldier in discussion might still be a very young man, maybe only in his early twenties.
The motive behind joining the war is questioned, as the soldier remembers that he had never been patriotic enough to care much about the invading Germans or Austrians, and he had been young and naïve enough to not be afraid of fear yet. He had thought only of the distant lands he would travel to; the honor and glory associated with the army; the excitement and exhilaration of holding a gun and hiding a dagger; and the pride of giving a smart salute. He was drafted and sent overseas with much ado; lots of people cheered and celebrated his valor and courage, reminiscent of the football matches he had won. The soldier is rudely brought back to reality as he remembers how out of the many people who had applauded his departure, few had been there on his return, and all his accomplishments in the war were forgotten as instead of encouraging his deeds, the people pitied his loss, and the fame and glory he had expected were denied him. Only a sole aged man visits him now and inquires about his life and health.
It is now that sitting alone in the park, noticing how women’s eyes pass over him after glancing at him piteously, to men who are still whole and complete, the ex-soldier thinks about his future. He knows he will live in an institute where there will be people to take care for him, and he will do as they say, following their rules to live the rest of his life. He wonders in the end helplessly, that why has no one come looking for him, to put him to bed. It has grown late and cold, but there is nothing the man can do to protect and warm himself, except hope and pray that someone would remember him and take care of him. Disabled is a potent and strong poem because of mainly the style and structure that Owen has used. Harsh words are used subtly to emphasize meaning behind the poem: the man is wearing a ‘ghastly suit of grey’, showing his morbid and depressed state of mind; sleep ‘mothers’ him from the laughter and noises of young boys, suggesting that he no longer finds the pleasures of life worth living for and prefers the temporary respite sleep provides. He regrets ‘throwing’ away his knees, suggesting and later confirming that the ideas and inspirations behind joining the war were not as patriotic or loyal as they should have been, and his vanity only has now left him a cripple. The girls all touch him like a ‘queer’ disease: the word ‘queer’ had started being used to describe homosexuals, so to think his social standing is the same as those considered, in those times, to be an unnatural blasphemy, is extremely revealing on how people think of disabled people. The imagery of his life bleeding out of him through the wound on his thigh, and the use of the word ‘purple’, a color denoting life and vitality, shows that the ordeal the soldier had gone through when he had been injured had a deep impact on him, as he no longer feels alive or has any desire to live. The analogy drawn between playing sports and being a soldier in a war, though by no means new, is nevertheless effective. Along with highlighting the egoistic and vain motives the man had for joining the army, it also acts as a reminder to him that his pride had caused him the exact thing he had been proud of: he would never again run in a field or score a winning goal, he would never again be praised for being a hero; only pitied endlessly for being a cripple. The things which he used to boast about: the wounds received in a match, and being carried on the shoulders of his team mates; have become permanent sources of sorrow: he no longer has his legs, and cannot help but be carried around helplessly. This contrast is both chilling and distressing. The structure of the poem: the frequent switches between present and past and the juxtaposition of remembrance and realization casts a harsh light on everything the soldier has lost. Each stanza starts with describing the soldier’s present conditions and then compares it to his past life, or vice versa. The final stanza however depicts what he thinks his future holds for him: a life lived by rules set by other people, a life of utter dependency and helplessness. Considering Owen’s own discharge from the army due to neurological problem, the poem carries considerable weight as it must have been written from direct observation. Perhaps this is why the words ring so true: the man in the wheelchair had been no patriotic passionate youth ready to die for his country. Rather he had been, more realistically, a vain and egoistic man seeking glory and recognition through the war, caring only of how he would look in uniform, and how the fairer sex would react to him. There are no medals and endless people doting on him when he returns disfigured and destroyed: there is only a wheelchair, and a few people with pitiful looks. Instead of celebrating his heroism and applauding his contribution to the war, the people all express their sorrow for his loss, making him feel even more unworthy and pathetic. Something which keeps recurring in his recollections of the life he used to live before the war is his active and successful interaction with women. He was a very appealing figure, lively and exuberant, enjoying all the ladies’ attentions, and living his life to the fullest. Now he is left sexually incompetent and can no longer derive pleasure from the very things which had once been such a comfort to him. The last lines highlight this deplorable state: Gone is the man who used to lead and win matches single handedly, and left in his place is a lifeless and hopeless shell who pleads desperately and helplessly for someone to appear and put him to bed.

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