This entry aims to compare and contrast two poems - Dulce et Decorum est and Disabled - by First World War poet Wilfred Owen. It pays special attention to how they create sympathy in the reader.
Wilfred Owen fought in the war from 1916-17. He was caught in a shell blast in 1917 and was sent back to England with shell shock. He wrote his poems to reveal the realities of war and to show what torture the soldiers were going through in the trenches.
Below are the first stanzas of each poem with links to sites which contain the poems in full. It is suggested that you read each of the poems before continuing with this entry.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit 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.
Dulce et Decorum est starts very slowly but picks up tempo in the middle, then it slows down again at the end of stanza four when it starts to return to its original speed. Disabled is very similar in many aspects because it starts and finishes slowly but unlike Dulce it keeps a steady tempo all the way through. Both of these styles were used by Owen to conjure up feelings of sympathy and regret.
Dulce et Decorum est opens with the strong description of 'coughing like hags'. The use of similes and metaphors really set the scene of tired, dishevelled soldiers trudging back home. The use of words like 'blood-shod' - in itself an unusual combination of words - puts the picture of men in shoes of blood vividly into the reader's mind.
Hyperbole is used to help stress a point. For example, 'all went lame' - this exaggeration helps give the feeling that it's not just these soldiers but it's the whole army which is feeling like this. The first stanza makes the reader feel deep sympathy and also it makes them doubt the reasons why the war is being fought.
Disabled starts just as shockingly with 'the young man sits in his ghastly suit of grey'. However, it is more straight forward and simple than Dulce, suggesting the simple needs and desires of the boy. The stanza still manages to bring the same emotions to the reader, especially when it talks about the other boys 'gathering sleep had mothered them from him'. Imagery like this is not used for the disabled boy but is used to describe the other children. This makes the reader feel that the young soldier is separated from the children. In this first stanza, he is 'waiting for the dark' which appears to be a metaphor for death and gives the reader the impression that this boy has been separated from society - so much so that all he has left to look forward to is death.
In comparison to these slow first stanzas, Dulce's second stanza starts with the sudden shout of 'Gas! Quick, boys!'. With this appearing right at the start of the stanza, it immediately picks up the tempo of the poem. The imagery following the shout ('ecstasy of fumbling') speeds up the poem as well. Then suddenly as the gas is upon them, the tempo is slowed down with 'the misty panes and thick green light'. This creates the impression that the man is drowning in air, and it sucks the reader in to see the man dying in slow motion. It helps you to see what the soldier sees and reminds you of the living soldiers who are haunted by such 'dreams'. The nightmares of many soldiers would contain sights such as this and feelings of helplessness. It makes the readers feel helpless too. It sucks you deep into the soldier's mind so you can see through his eyes.
Unlike this quick verse, Disabled's next stanza continues in the same tempo as its first, drifting into narrative form with 'About this time' and 'There was' which create a distance between the reader and the disabled man, as well as distancing him from his past and his friends. This is added to by use of adverbial phrases such as 'one time', producing contrasts between past and present, making the boy yearn for all his past and the reader yearn for the boy. The readers are forced to feel sympathy for this boy as he recollects his past. Little imagery is used by Owen ('like a queer disease' and 'the hot race/leap of purple' being two of the few images created) which adds power to his present physical repulsiveness and emphasising the speed at which his youth plus his beauty was drained out of him. This young man obviously was very handsome when he was 'whole' and the comparisons to his current state make the reader sympathise with him even more.
In Dulce et Decorum est's final stanza, the focus is shifted onto the reader. Phrases like 'you too could pace' causing the reader to feel responsible for the war and making them feel guilty. It drags you into the horror and, again, makes you apart of the drama. 'Bitter as the cud' makes you taste the atmosphere and the revolting surroundings around the group. Then the last four lines smack home Owen's point of 'desperate glory' and that the war and all those innocent deaths were caused by ignorance on the civilian and reader's part, thus making the reader feel terrible about the war and its consequences.
Disabled's final stanza does not openly attack the reader like Dulce; it has no imagery, it's just a plain summary of his future. This is where the reader finally realises that the boy is not waiting for the end of the day, but the end of his life, he has nothing to live for now. He can only envy other men as he waits for 'dark' for them to 'come'.
Both Dulce and Disabled criticise the reader and the war but they do it in different ways. Dulce has an angry and bitter tone and sucks the reader into the war making them see the reality of death and the misery. To achieve this it uses high amounts of imagery and employs expert use of language. It finally turns on the reader and attacks them for helping the young men sign up and encouraging them.
Disabled, on the other hand, is soft and quiet, with a more restrained use of imagery, which brings a sorrowful and empty edge to the poem. We, as readers, are made to feel responsible for the boy without feeling under direct attack. It tells us the boy's story and leaves it at that, suggesting to the reader that the boy's story is enough to make you sympathise.
Dulce et Decorum est attacks the reader and gives you a feel of the war, showing you the horror. This makes the poem more understandable and makes the reader regretful and guilty for the war. Disabled lacks the power that Dulce possesses, even though it does evoke sympathy for the boy. Dulce, on the other hand, makes you feel sympathy for the whole army and makes you think about the reasons for the war.