Student Question

Who is the speaker in Owen's "Disabled" and what is the poem's overall message?

Quick answer:

The speaker of Owen's poem “Disabled” is an omniscient narrator or speaker who describes the external appearance and innermost thoughts and feelings of a disabled soldier. The speaker may well be Owen himself, for as a World War I soldier, he likely knew many such men. The speaker contrasts the soldier's fun-loving life before the war and his hasty enlistment with his wounding and his experiences as a disabled veteran.

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Wilfred Owen was a solider poet of the First World War. His poems, like “Disabled,” focus on the effects of that war. The speaker in “Disabled” is actually an omniscient narrator, one who knows both the outward appearance and the innermost thoughts and feelings of the poem's subject, a disabled soldier who was wounded in battle and is now confined to a wheelchair. We might wonder if the speaker is actually Owen himself (remember that the speaker and poet are not always the same), for as a soldier, he must have witnessed the struggles of many men like the one described here.

That said, let's look at the message of this poem. It begins with a description of a disabled man. He has lost both of his legs and one arm, and he sits in his wheelchair listening to boys playing in the park. We get a strong sense of melancholy, for the man was once able to run and play like those boys, and now he cannot.

In the second stanza, the man recalls how he once enjoyed a night on the town and how he romanced the girls, and he mourns that he will no longer do so. Girls, perhaps nurses, touch him now as though he were “some queer disease” (line 13).

He was young once, the man reflects, and that was just last year, but now he is old and pale. He lost all his color, his very blood, “down shell-holes” (line 18) when he was wounded. There was a time, he reminisces, when he didn't mind a little blood on his leg, when it came from a slight scratch in a game of football, especially when he could enjoy the victory celebration afterward.

It was following just such an ecstatic celebration that he joined the army, lying about his age. He didn't enlist because of the enemy:

Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him (lines 30–31).

He joined for the excitement, the romance, the admiration of a pretty girl, the smart uniform, and the cheers.

But now, as he sits in his wheelchair, he knows that all this has passed. “Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes” (line 40). He will follow rules. He will receive pity. But the women's eyes will not look upon him; they will move along to a man who is strong and whole.

The poem ends on a bleak note:

How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come? (lines 45–46).

We get a sense of the man's helplessness and despair. He has remembered what his life was like before the war, so light and fun and unthinking. He regrets his decision to join up, a decision so hasty, so unconsidered, so impetuous. He recalls the moment everything changed, and he looks ahead only to bleak, dark days as a disabled veteran.

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