Disabled - Language, tone and structure

Language in Disabled

The language Owen uses in Disabled swings between the bleak diction used to describe the man’s present life and the upbeat words of his glory days as a young, healthy man. At both extremes Owen keeps the words simple.

Time shifts

The opening stanza, which depicts activity eclipsed by stillness due to the passing of the hours, serves as a metaphor for the effects of time on the young man in the rest of the poem. There are many references that signal the past: ‘about this time’ l.7 / ‘in the old times’ l.10 / ‘one time’l.21. Owen’s triple use of ‘now’ pulls us back to the present. Each time the word appears at the start of the line. In l.11 and 16 it appears within the stanza and is the first word of the final stanza.

The present


Owen heaps up negatives to illustrate the harsh ‘now’. In l.1 ‘waiting’ conveys a sense of hopelessness rather than anticipation, given its association with the ‘dark’ and cold (conveyed by ‘shivered’ l.2). The ‘ghastly’, ‘legless’ suit, ‘sewn short at elbow’ l.2-3 relentlessly exposes us to the man’s plight. 


In stanza two the ‘Now’ returns us from the man’s past to the present and a future where he will:

               never feel again how slim
Girl’s waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. l.11-12

The sexual tension implied by these words builds throughout the poem. ‘Now’:

All of them touch him like some queer disease. (l.13)

Owen juxtaposes the women’s revulsion at the end of stanza two with the man’s lost beauty in stanzas three, four and five. This has the effect of making the final female rejection of him ‘tonight’ more poignant:

                         the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men who were whole (l.43-4)

Owen has given us the reasons for this in stanza three: ‘Now he is old’, and he repeats the plosive ‘b’ to emphasise the harsh truth that ‘his back will never brace’. (l.16). Owen’s use of the present tense in, ’He’s lost his colour’ l.17, is a reminder of how the actions of the past continue to have an impact in the present ; one moment of warfare has changed the man’s life forever.


Owen concludes Disabled with one of the most pitiful endings of any of his poems:

How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come? l.45-6

Exclaiming about the temperature and lateness of the hour is the kind of comment associated with the elderly; it would never have bothered the fit young footballer the man once was. The repeated complaint strikes a querulous tone and the sheer fact it needs asking (twice) emphasises the man’s physical helplessness – like a child he needs ‘putting to bed’.

Owen sees the ex-soldier’s future as dismal: a ’few sick years’ are all that are left, doing only what ‘the rules consider wise’ and taking ‘whatever pity they may dole.’ Each word is dreary and empty of hope and joy. The ‘pity’ is given out as if it is a duty, the term ‘dole’ being associated with charitable hand-outs to the destitute.

The past

Light and loveliness

In contrast to the ex-soldier’s current situation, Owen depicts the past in enticing detail.

In ‘Town’ before the war, it used to ‘swing so gay’ when ‘glow-lamps budded’ and ‘girls glanced lovelier.’ Here Owen’s use of alliteration serves to emphasise the glamour. The ‘light blue’ of the trees and sense of light and spring (‘budded’) offer a contrast to the greyness and absence of colour in the present (l.1,2,17).


As well as the attractiveness of the girls, Owen records how beautiful the young man had been. An artist was ‘silly for his face’, someone said that in a kilt ‘he’d look a god’. The man himself recognises his physical appeal and dreams of:

           jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks (l.32-3)

all part of the allure of the highland uniform. The ‘smart salutes’ and ‘esprit de corps’ of l.33 and l.35 add to the glamour of joining up.

The horror

Owen concentrates his poetic techniques in the description of the turning point when the man’s ‘lifetime lapsed’ l.19. The sudden flow of blood is conveyed by the flowing ‘l’ alliteration:

half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple. l.20

whilst the plosive ‘p’s and hard ‘t’ and ‘d’ make the assonance of ‘purple spurted’ somehow distasteful. Owen’s use of the active verbs ‘threw away’ l.10, ‘lost’ l.17 and ‘poured’ l.18 are ironic, suggesting as they do that the man’s suffering was of his own volition. 

It would be easy to dismiss the whole incident as hyperbole, but for the grim outcome of these injuries: multiple amputation. The blood would indeed ‘leap’ and spurt from severed arteries, the veins would ‘run dry’ and limbs would die as a result. The use of the verb ‘poured’ l.18 is ambiguous. Blood would literally pour from an open wound but Owen means more than that. Sacrifices on the front were often compared to Christ’s pouring out his life blood (see Matthew 26:28) in order to save others. By this analogy, the soldier’s blood ‘poured .. down the shell-holes’ is to save his country.


Owen sets the overall tone of sadness and despair in the first lines. The voices of the boys playing in the park ‘rang saddening’. Their ‘play and pleasure’ casts the immobile, disabled man into deeper gloom. Whereas they are ‘mothered’ home to sleep, the ex-soldier is stranded, apparently forgotten, at the poem’s end.

The moments when Owen takes us back into past do little to lighten the tone of Disabled. We are constantly reminded of the waste of war. The triumph of a victorious footballer ‘carried shoulder high’ is juxtaposed in the reader’s mind by images of WWI stretcher-bearers carrying damaged bodies like that of the ex-soldier. Although the soldier had helped ‘win’ the war, he was not cheered as he would have been if he’d scored a winning ‘Goal’, despite his much more costly efforts.

Investigating language and tone in Disabled

  • Each stanza is a vignette (a brief sketch) of different phases in the man’s life. How does Owen’s diction create a picture of a handsome, healthy young man?
  • How effective is Owen’s language in building up a picture of the disabled man as a victim of war?
  • How does Owen use juxtaposition to bring home the contrast between the past and the present in Disabled?

Structure in Disabled

Owen recounts the man’s life and present condition over seven stanzas of differing lengths. Sadness and despair are threaded through every verse:

Stanza one shows us the man in his wheel-chair. He is cold and motionless, waiting for the day to end. The poem is ‘bookended’ by the same scene in the final stanza, when the day has ended and he is left behind in the cold darkness

Stanza two introduces the sexual longing experienced by the wounded man. Recalling how girls ‘glanced lovelier’, he realises that he will never feel again the slimness of ‘Girls’ waists’ l.12

Stanza three juxtaposes the past handsomeness of the young man which had attracted the attentions of a painter with his current appearance – unable to sit up straight, devoid of limbs and colour, ‘half’ the man he was l.19

Stanza four depicts the youthful innocence of a lad more swayed by football, girls, glamour and alcohol than by any measured reflection about the cost of war. We learn that he was not yet nineteen and trying to impress a girlfriend (‘his Meg’ l.26, whose fickleness is conveyed by her absence from the man’s current situation). Now bitterly experienced, the man’s bewilderment and regret are captured by the understatement: ‘He wonders why.’

In stanza five Owen tells us that the disabled man had had no idea of the realities of warfare. He’d not previously experienced focused enmity or paralysing ‘Fear’ l.32; rather, he joined up for the uniform, comradeship and pay, cheered to the front by crowds and drums

The brief penultimate stanza details the man’s inactivity once wounded, merely the passive recipient of others’ unenthusiastic attentions

The final stanza reminds us that the ex-soldier is now permanently excluded from the ranks of those who are ‘strong’ and ‘whole’ l.44, unable even to go to bed unaided.



Owen’s rhyme scheme in Disabled is fairly regular with words rhyming within two or three lines of each other and within the stanza. However, he links the narrative from verse to verse by overlapping rhyme patterns into new stanzas. Thus, ‘grey’ and ‘day’ in stanza one rhyme with ‘gay’ in the second verse; ‘dry’ and ‘thigh’ in stanza three link to ‘shoulder–high’ in the next verse. The bringing together of veins running dry and the purple spurting thigh of the injured man with the 'shoulder-high’ triumph of his glory days distils the pity. 

Similarly, in l.35 (stanza five) the man is in his prime, one of the ‘young recruits’. This brave phrase is rhymed in the forlorn sixth verse with the ‘fruits’ he earned from his labours – not glory, but sympathy and a life (in stanza seven) of ‘sick years in institutes’. 

It is perhaps significant that l.12 ends with ‘hands’, which has no counter rhyme anywhere else in the poem. The warmth of the girls’ hands will never again be experienced by the disabled man.


Owen’s use of repletion is particularly effective in the fourth stanza, as the ex-soldier stumbles through his recollections of why he ended up fighting on the Western Front. Recalling his footballing prowess, - ‘After the matches’ l.22 – it is ironic that he remembers it was ‘after football’ l.23 that he signed up. The idea that ‘he’d better join’ l.24 becomes the active decision ‘He asked to join’ l.28, after his wondering ‘why’ l.24 clarifies into a reason – ‘That’s why;’ l.26. And the role played by the attitude of women in his decision is emphasised by the repetition of ‘to please’ in lines 26 and 27 – a desire to please remembered with bitterness as ‘his Meg’ is equated with the fickleness of all adolescent girls – she is just a ‘giddy jilt[s]’ l.26-7 (to jilt means to throw over a lover).

The phrase ‘no fears / Of Fear’ neatly contrasts the man’s previous insouciance with the terrifying reality of warfare. Via the repeated use of ‘cheer’, Owen strips away the enthusiasm of people for war: 

  • ‘cheers’ l.36 are plural and magnified by drums
  • ‘cheered’ l.37 refers to an event in the past which has now lost its power
  • later in l.37 ‘cheer’ is stripped to a single sound, negated by referring to an event (‘Goal’) that will never be attributed to the man now.


Owen received a letter from Robert Graves criticising him for the irregularity of his line lengths and for daring to break with the poetic tradition which demanded a regular pattern. Graves told Owen that, despite Disabled being a ‘damn fine poem’, he must follow the rules:

‘Make new metres by all means, but one must observe the rules laid down by custom of centuries’.

Writing largely in pentameter, in lines 10 and 40 Owen introduces an extra foot. This serves to disrupt the narrative flow and halt the forward progress of the reader, just as it has halted the progress of the young soldier. 

In line 23 Owen adds an extra syllable, subtly focusing on the incoherence of a man who has drunk too much after a football match and signs up as a consequence. With too much time to reflect, indicated by the dash, the man is now bewildered at how things ended up as they did (‘- He wonders why.’ l.24). Owen evokes the halting search of the man’s memory for the reasons he went to war by employing frequent caesurae in the fourth stanza.

Though much of the metre is iambic, Owen reverses the opening feet of l.38 and 39 in the sixth stanza which helps create a sense of stasis after the rapid, rhythmic motion of the preceding lines, linked by a series of ‘and’s (l.33-6).

Investigating structure and versification in Disabled

  • Despite Graves’ criticism, Owen continued to break the ‘rules’. What does Owen’s purposeful use of the extra foot add to the emotion of his poetry?
  • Find a more metrically ‘regular’ poem by Owen and compare its effect with that of Disabled.
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