Wilfred Owen served as an officer in the first world war. He spent several months in Craig Lockhart War Hospital during the war suffering from neurasthenia, or shell shock, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, another war poet, and wrote some of his best poetry. He saw his fellow soldiers struggle, fight and die in the mud and misery of the trenches and was enraged with the senseless killing on the battlefield. He felt that it was a terrible waste of life.
As a tragic example of the “doomed youth” of his own poems, he was killed by German machine-gun fire at the age of only 25, just 7 days before the Armistice. The bells were ringing in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parents’ home, bringing them the telegram with the news of their son’s death. Wilfred Owen expresses his low opinion of war in “Disabled” through the sadness and regret of a young man who lost both arms and both legs in the fighting. The poem contrasts the past and the present, with the young man in his hospital bed remembering what his life used to be like.
The poem starts in the present, with the young man sitting in a wheelchair, “waiting for dark” which conveys his helplessness, and also that maybe he is not receiving the level of care he could be. He is wearing a “ghastly suit of grey” sewn short at leg and elbow, which seems to depersonalize him, indicating he could be in some sort of an institution. We discover from the first stanza not only that he has no arms or legs but that he is sad and depressed, as he listens to the sound of “voices of boys saddening like a hymn”.
Then the young man looks back on the happy times before he joined the army: “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. ” Soft sounding words like “glow lamps” “budded” and “light blue trees” conjure the image of happiness, life, and light. He describes those times as the “old times” as though the war has aged him so much that they seem a long time ago.
Adding to the idea that the war has aged him are the lines: And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race, And leap of purple spurted from his thigh” The repeated “and” builds up to the last line of the memory, which is described in more visual, graphic detail than the rest of the poem, as he is remembering the battlefield and losing his legs, whereas his other memories are of the happier times before he joined up. He also says that last year his face was “younger than his youth” – he was a fresh-faced, handsome young man, but then he says: “Now, he is old; his back will never brace”
Now, only a year later, he cannot even sit up alone. The softer sounds of the “Ys” in the former quotation, before he joined up, contrast with the harder “Bs” of the latter – this is an example of the poem’s contrast between past and present. He goes on to remember: “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. ” Words like “subtle” and “slim” sound sensual and words like “feel” and “touch” refer to the senses, but he is remembering what he will never have again.
The war and what happened to him has affected him so much he cannot think without remembering the things he will never have again and how he has become like a leper who people can hardly bring themselves to touch. The young man blames himself for being so foolish and flippant about joining the army, saying that he “threw away his knees” and lost his colour because he “poured it down shell holes till the veins ran dry” – it is as though it were all his fault and he did it to himself through his own foolishness.
Owen gives us the young man’s thoughts as he recalls his reasons for joining up and the use of colloquial language such as “giddy jilts” and “drunk a peg” adds to the effect of entering the young man’s head. “He thought he’d better join – he wonders why. ” He regrets joining the army, and as he looks back on his reasons we realise they are all flippant and shallow. He remembers being carried shoulder high after a football match and how he “liked a blood-smear down his leg” then, and he thought the war would be the same, thinking only of the glory and honour and being carried home as a hero.
He also wanted “to please his Meg” and other girls, thinking only of impressing people, the attractive uniform and weapons, and the “esprit de corps” – he was caught up in the glorious image of being a soldier. He recalls being drafted out in glory, “with drums and cheers”, but how only some cheered when he returned, an invalid, hardened and embittered by war, “but not as crowds cheer Goal” – again, contrasting before and after he experienced war and was injured.
The people who greet him do not know how to react to him now that he is limbless: Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes Passed from him to the men that were whole” The women cannot even bear to look at him, they are so uncomfortable with his obvious injuries and do not know how to react to the men who have been maimed and mutilated by the fighting, as this is a side of war they have not had to face before. He speaks sarcastically about a man who “Thanked him, and then enquired about his soul”, implying either that now most of his body is gone his soul is all he has left, or that he will soon die, or both.
Owen criticises the authorities as he describes how: “He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; Smiling, they wrote his lie, aged nineteen years. ” They knew very well that he was not really nineteen but they did not care, they simply wanted soldiers. Owen also criticises the treatment by the authorities of the young injured men who have to rely on others for everything. The young man knows he will go into an institute, and “Do what things the rules consider wise, And take whatever pity they may dole. ”
His individual needs will not be cared for, it will all be very impersonal, and pity will be ‘doled out’ like some sort of commodity. We really pity the young man, who knows he will not live much longer, because we feel that it is a complete waste of his life, which has been cut short while he is still young. He has no future and relies on others for everything.
At the end of the poem we hear the young man’s thoughts again, as he thinks: “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come And put him to bed? Why don’t they come? This conveys a sense of frustration that he has nothing to do but sit and wait and think. His injury has caused him to be trapped in his own depressing thoughts. “Disabled” leaves a lasting impression on us of the sadness war can create because of the way the young man’s hopeless present is contrasted with his happy past, and his regret at joining the army. This and the young man’s sense of helplessness because he cannot do anything for himself when he used to be so active adds a lot of poignancy to the poem.
The subject of “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is very different from that of “Disabled”. While the latter dwells on the consequences of the war in the form of an injured soldier and also people’s attitudes towards him, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” gives a vivid account of the horrors of war, and is written in first person which makes everything described seem more personal and more immediate. Owen starts by portraying the retreating soldiers trudging through the mud, using graphic images and harsh-sounding onomatopoeic words to convey the defeated atmosphere, for example: Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge” The whole first stanza impresses upon the reader that war is not all glory and honour and victory, and in common with “Disabled” describes the retreating soldiers as being like old women to show how much war has aged them, using words like “bent double”, “old beggars”, and “hags”. These also add to the effect of phrases such as “men marched asleep”, “drunk with fatigue” and “all went lame, all blind” in setting the tired, deflated tone of the stanza.
The stanza finishes with the soldiers being “deaf even to the hoots Of gas shells dropping softly behind”. The soldiers are so exhausted and lethargic they scarcely even notice the gas shells, which seem to them to drop “softly”, until suddenly the second stanza starts on a sudden, urgent note with “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! ” – this exclamation is like speech but not in speech marks, and makes it seem as though Owen is there with the “boys”.
At this point the speed of the poem suddenly changes, which it does several times throughout the poem, while the speed of “Disabled” remains constant throughout, the only changes being in the mood of the poem, as the poem switches between past and present. In “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, there are many verbs in the present participle, such as “floundering” and “drowning” which make the action seem more ongoing and immediate. The phrase “an ecstasy of fumbling” adds to the urgent tone and implies a sort of madness as the soldiers try desperately to fit the gas helmets.
One man, who fails to fit his helmet in time, is described as drowning “As under a green sea”, “floundering, like a man in fire or lime” before their very eyes, with them having to look on through the “misty panes” of their gas helmets, powerless to help. It sounds like a painful and horrible death and to make even more of an effect on the reader, Owen says on two lines separate from the rest to give extra emphasis, how the dead man haunts him in what he describes as “smothering dreams” – the dead man is not the only victim: the men who had to watch him die will have to live with the memory for the rest of their lives.
In the next part of the poem the tone becomes noticeably angry and attacking, addressing the reader directly. Owen was addressing in particular the poet Jessie Pope, who wrote very trite, complacent poems about how glorious it is to fight and die for your country, without mentioning any of the unpleasant aspects of war. Owen describes how the body was flung unceremoniously into a wagon with an explicit, horrific account, describing the eyes of the dead man as Writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” and also how the blood “Came gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”. Owen wanted these vivid images and those used to describe the man’s death to shatter people’s misconceptions about dying for one’s country – he is trying to expose the unglamorous truth. He tells the reader (i. e.
Jessie Pope) that if they could experience these horrors and if they knew what war was actually like they would not believe, or encourage anyone else to believe, in the “old Lie” – which people have believed for too long, that “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” or in English, “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country”. The tone of “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is much angrier and more attacking than that of “Disabled”, which is bitter and regretful, with the tragedy of the young man’s decimated life and inevitable death as the focal point.
The poignancy is sharpened by his intense bitterness when he looks back at the flippant, shallow reasons why he joined the army and, in effect, threw his life away. This ties in with “Dulce Et Decorum Est” in that his attitude to war is that of so many people who knew nothing about what it was really like, like Jessie Pope – thinking only of the honour and the glory, and in his case, the thought does not even occur to him of dying for his country. These were exactly the sorts of attitudes Wilfred Owen was trying to change through his poetry.