A Critical Analysis of Wilfred Owen's "Disabled"

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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...
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