Wilfred Owen's poem "Disabled" is about a soldier who came home from WWI missing limbs, and how this disability changed his life. This poem was written when Owen was in Craiglockhart War Hospital being treated for shell shock. It is very likely that he saw numerous soldiers like the one he describes in this poem while he was at the hospital. It was common that soldiers would return home missing limbs or severely wounded, there wasn't a whole lot that could be done for soldiers while they were on the frontline; so many injuries became more serious due to lack of medical care.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suits of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him (lines 1-6).
In the dark, no one can see you; he can be the hero he was before he lost his limbs. In the dark, he doesn't have to face reality.
"Shivered," in line two, indicates that he is outside and this conjecture is backed up by line three, where the narrator mentions that he was going "through the park".
It is a common practice to sew shut pant legs and sleeves when someone is missing that appendage; this man appears to have lost his legs and a forearm.
The voices of boys and it made him feel sad; they make him remember his childhood. It was not long ago that he was like those boys running around with any cares, but it all seems like a distant memory. The war robs you of your innocence and naivety. He is also probably a little jealous of them, they can still believe in fairy tales and happy endings, whereas he knows that not every life has a happy ending. Soldiers lose their youth to the war.
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,-
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
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 (7-13).
The second stanza of the poem is the narrator reminiscing about how things used to be before he was injured.
Around this time of day he used to go out on the town and party with his friends. Girls were always around and would flirt with him; they wanted to be with him, because he was a hero of war, as cliché as that sounds.
He threw his knees away when he enlisted in the army. If he hadn't signed up he would still be healthy, and the girls would still be looking at him. Girls do not want to be with someone who is crippled; heroes do not get injured. It seems like he has given up on life as much as life has given up on him. He has succumbed to the idea that he is not a real man anymore; others can probably sense this about him, and they stay away because they do not want to be dragged down by him and his self-pity. Granted, women could be touching him with disgust, but it is equally likely that it is him who is projecting his own feelings of disgust on them.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh (14-20).
Line fourteen is basically saying that there was a girl, who is an artist, who was smitten with him. "For it was younger than his youth" is just another way of saying that he had a baby face. He adds "last year" to the end of line fifteen as a way of telling the reader that he does not look like that anymore. His face has changed a lot during the war. His face has lost its boyhood charm, and it has been replaced by a face that is hard and worn by the ravages of war.
He describes himself as being old even though the oldest that he is likely to be is twenty-two.
He lost his color, most likely means that he lost a lot of blood. He was caught in enemy fire, which is how he lost his limbs. He bled and bled until there was no more blood left. His injuries caused him to grow up very quickly; the reality of warfare sunk in, and it was no longer something that was considered to be honorable, glorious, nor fun.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join.-He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts,
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of fear came yet. He thought of jeweled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers (21-36).
At one time, the sign of blood on one's body was considered a good, honorable thing. In line two, "carried shoulder-high" is from Houseman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young." The narrator is reminiscing about when and why he originally enlisted. It was after a football game and a drink of brandy with soda that he decided to join. When he says "He wonders why" he is trying to make sense of his decision; did he join because he genuinely wanted to, or was it because he was under the influence of alcohol, or was it just because of the girls. "Kilts" indicates that he was from Scotland. "Jilts" are unpredictable women.
He didn't have to prove his worth to the recruitment officers; they just signed him up without question. They didn't even question that he was nineteen years old, which he was not. The fact that he was playing on a football team and in immature way he describes his enlistment is proof that he is younger than nineteen.
He knew nothing of Germans or Austria. He did not know anything about the politics of the war. He only thought of how the uniform would make him look, and how people would treat him once he put it on. "Jeweled hilts" are ornamental daggers; Scottish soldiers would put them in the top of one of their stockings. "Pay arrears" means back pay. "Esprit de corps" means to have regard for the honor and interests of a military unit.
When men left for war they were sent off with many drums and cheers, it would be like a big parade.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul (37-39).
There were not a lot of people there to welcome him home; no one wanted to see the negative aspects of the war. The only way a nation could justify their involvement in war is to not acknowledge that men were dying and being severely injured. There was only one man who thanked him for defending his country; perhaps that man was a former soldier.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come? (40-46)
He will now have to spend a few years in war hospitals, where they will experiment with different treatments on him until they finally decide that there is nothing more that they can do. He will then be released from the hospital, and he will begin to receive monthly disability checks from the government.
Women didn't look at him the way that they used to. He seems to be very depressed by the fact that he will never be a whole man again, and he will never get to experience the love of a woman.
Owen, Wilfred. "Disabled." Norton Anthology of English Literature: Twentieth Century and After. Vol. F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1977-9.