Disabled - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Disabled


Owen uses only two similes in this poem. The first refers to the voices of the playing boys which remind him of pleasant, rather than enforced, leisure. Even so, their voices ‘rang saddening like a hymn,’ l.4. 

It is the end of the day. Although evening hymns are traditionally quiet and reflective, the suggestion here is that they are melancholic. Given the dusk he is depicting, Owen might have been thinking of the following hymn;

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;

WWI stretcher bearersLike many evening hymns, the lyrics are ambiguous, signifying not only the end of the day but the end of life’s day. This emphasises the ghastly grey figure sitting in the dark waiting. 

Metaphor and personification

In line 6 sleep is personified as a mother gathering her children to her at the end of the day:

Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

It is a gentle metaphor that conveys deep pity for a man who is cold and tired and yet unable to leave his position until someone (not a mother) remembers that he needs putting to bed. 

Images of girls and women 

The metaphor of ‘mothered’ adds to the pain of physical isolation which runs through the poem. There are five defined references to girls and women, yet they do not bring comfort. Instead, they add to the man’s suffering, touching him ‘like some queer disease.’ (l.14). Owen’s simile suggests that the girls make no effort to disguise their revulsion, touching the youth’s flesh as if they are afraid that they might catch something. Later they avert their eyes from him, preferring ‘the strong men’ who are ‘whole’. l.43.

Images of sport

Owen implies that the man was physically fit: a footballer who once, ironically, enjoyed a ‘blood-smear down his leg’, l.23. The reference in line 19 to the ‘hot race’ as he bled his life away is taken up by Owen in the sketch of the man’s sporting career in stanza four, which echoes bleakly in line 47 when Owen tells us that the ‘some cheered him home’ but not ‘as crowds cheer Goal’.


The broken figure at the centre of Disabled is a powerful symbol standing for the destruction and aftermath of war. The football game and the blood smear down his leg symbolises the way in which at first many men saw war as a game to be won with honour and glory, but which ended in bloodshed and slaughter. 

The youth and innocence of the participants is emphasised. Over the first three stanzas Owen refers to boys, girls and the face of the adolescent soldier which looked ‘younger than his youth’. Later he mentions the lie about the lad being as old as ‘nineteen’ l.29 and ‘young recruits’ l.35. These are all the ‘doomed youth’ of the Anthem. Only a year later, the ex-soldier ‘is old’ l.16. 

‘The solemn man’ of line 37 and the pity ‘doled’ out by the institutions of the final stanza symbolise the insensitivity of what Owen sometimes called ‘The Nation’ i.e. the Home front.

The most powerful symbol of all is there at the start and the end of the poem. It is the darkness, l.1 coming ‘after day’ l.5. The coldness and lateness of the penultimate line are symbols in their own way of the death for which the man waits.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Disabled

  • In Disabled women and girls are represented in a less than positive light. Look at how Owen builds up this picture throughout the poem.
    • What is his purpose in doing so?
    • Do you think this is Owen’s view or the protagonist’s view?

Themes in Disabled

  • Owen had first-hand experience of disability in its widest sense i.e. the way in which the  breakdown of body or mind affects the ability of human beings to function normally. This is the most obvious theme of the poem
  • However Disabled, of all Owen’s poems, is also a powerful evocation of the theme of the pity of war
  • Owen wants us to recognise the bravery and self-sacrifice of the men. Owen reminds us of that sacrifice in the phrase: ‘Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry’
  • That the man had ‘lost his colour’ (i.e. his blood) ‘very far from here’ reiterates another theme: the distance between the Western front and the Home front, not merely in terms of geography
  • The horror of the man’s wounds is a grim theme. The lines:
                                            the hot race
    And leap of purple spurted from his thigh’ l.19-20
    are unequivocally drawn from memory. Owen must have seen such an injury during his time on the front. 

Investigating themes in Disabled

  • At one point Owen planned to call his book of war poem ‘Disabled and Other Poems’. Say whether you think this would have been a good choice.
  • Can you think of the title of any other poem which, in your view, would have been as effective to encapsulate the collection?
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