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The subject of war and the loss of human life has had a deep influence on poetry of the first half of the 20th century. Many poets from around the world had felt the direct impact of earth-shattering wars and went on to express their opinions through their works. It was during wartime eras that the poems “Disabled” and “Refugee Blues” were written by Wilfred Owen and W.H. Auden respectively. Both of the given war poems are considered to be some of the most significant pieces of poetry of their time and the fact that they were written during times of worldwide conflict explains their brutal honesty, grim atmospheres and the poets’ desire to convey both shock and sadness through their interpreted image of war.
“Disabled” was written by Wilfred Owen when he was in England to recover from war trauma. The title gives a glimpse of what the poem is about – a lonely soldier forced to be amputated. Although it is only a single piece of his string of anti-war poems, “Disabled” is arguably one of his most effective and significant works.
The context of the poem takes place in Britain during its involvement in the Great War and tells a story of a disabled (hence the title) soldier who resides in a hospital.
To shock the readers, Owen reveals that the soldier is actually a young adolescent, aged 17-19, who returning from the Western Front, was forced to have his limbs amputated. In contrast, “Refugee Blues” is a poetical work of W.
H. Auden in 1939 – the year World War Two broke out. The name of the title is a reference to an old musical genre – blues. They were originally sang by early African slaves on American soil. The songs of the particular genre were mostly about sadness and depression. This, combined with the term ‘refugee’, create an interesting title, that is useful to identify what type of person is the protagonist and why the structure of the poem is reminiscent of a (blues) song. Although compared to “Disabled” it is slightly less heavy in terms of tone and atmosphere, the second (or third) reading of the poem should convince most readers that the horrors of war are actually very prominent and are shown through the terrified eyes of an innocent citizen. The story within tells about a German Jew and his wife, both taking numerous attempts to escape their homeland in hopes for salvation as their life becomes that of downward spiral following the rise of the fascist regime. Although the poets Wilfred Owen and W.H. Auden express their attitudes differently, it can be considered that both voice their opinion on the same side of the arguement.
As said above, both “Disabled” and “Refugee Blues” share anti-war ideals, however they refer to different issues. This is most probably because, the two poems were written during different political eras, the Great War and the Second World War. “Disabled”, written in 1917, addresses the brutality experienced by British soldiers on the Western Front and how the youth was fooled into volunteering by the older members of the nation’s upper class who did nothing but scrutinized them, living in their safe, comfortable English homes while their sons died in the name of “patriotism”. Nonetheless, Owen’s poetry expands on that point to show that it is not only old men who do the trickery, but it is also ordinary people who encourage and ultimately, let down the soldiers. An example of that would be “Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts”. This only us what led the disabled trooper to his tragedy, but to make his existence in this world even more depressing and sad, Owen goes on with “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come?” The readers are shown that after the war ends, whether the soldier is dead or alive, there won’t be much good left to him, as their somewhat ignorant society decides to abandon the men who put their lives on stake for their flag.
Perhaps this serves to state that true patriotism is ultimately pointless and obsolete, or that no matter what form it takes, it does more harm than good by painting a false image of “glory” in people’s minds. It can be said that “Disabled” is written to show how soldiers adapt to a wartime/post-war society. The poem is a reflection of Owen’s surroundings while in fighting in France and resting at the military hospital in England. A widely-considered opinion that soldiers are state-sponsored killers is being turned down by the poet to show how these young, inexperienced and unwilling men are being put in position that is a matter of life and death, from which, most who manage to return are either scarred mentally or broken physically. Looking at the language of the poem, Owen’s overall attitude can be interpreted as more pessimistic, as he leaves a rather sour taste about the subject of war. W.O. tries to convince the readers that the war does not necessarily make one a hero, and neither does it bring true pride to combatants, rather using it to lure the men to their death.
In fact, if there was anyone to feel a sense of glory or pride, it would be those who didn’t participate or lacked the courage to face the horrific effects of war, which is the idea Wilfred was trying to bring across to future generations. It should be noted that this poem, among his many others, was written during the brief period in-between Owen’s deployments to France, which gives it a feeling of raw energy that came from his recently-seen experiences at the front, which resulted in the brutal honesty of the poem. Whereas W.O. wrote about volunteers and how they were ignored and exploited by citizens, Auden seems to be more concerned about innocent people rather than troops, specifically minorities, almost as if “Refugee Blues” is the flip-side of “Disabled”. There is only one occasion in the entire poem where the soldiers (who serve the regime) appear – at the very end. Their primary purpose there was to destroy any sense of optimism left in the poem.
The quote to represent that is: “Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro: looking for you and me, my dear…” The fact that none of the soldiers were described or weren’t given any personal development is a rather bland effort by Auden (in my opinion, of course) because it is well known that despite a high morale, there were members of the Wehrmacht who did not see eye-to-eye to Hitler or his policies and were renegades and deserters. Therefore, it is implied that Auden saw all German soldiers within the same group – anti-Semitists. On the other hand, he had a good arguement for the plight of refugees, after all, they were German nationals no matter their religion/ethinity, but were hunted down anyways. This shows how inhumane the regime was to their countrymen and allows the reader to understand that racial and religious topics could be used to kill innocents, rather than to promote peace. Regarding attitudes, the two poets ultimately bring the same message: they wished to bring an end to the wars that revolved around their lives. Differences, however, should be noted between the two: Owen displays his attitude quite clearly, criticizing the Great War at every possible turn – literally and figuratively.
This is because of his prior military history and the fact that he was fooled into serving by being a staunch supporter of his country – he should have known better. W.H. Auden is indifferent to what happens to the troops, instead, he writes from a civilian’s point of view to represent their agony. There is still some optimism in him, however. For example in the quotation: “But we are still alive my dear, we are still alive”. He isn’t as harsh a critic of war as Owen due the fact that the latter served as a Sergeant and went through though times such as defending trenches from bombings and seeing his men die, all experienced first-hand. Another reason could be that the Second World War was just beginning when the poem was written (1939) and its main focus was on the Holocaust. Therefore the comparison between the two should not be about war, but about inhuman conditions and about betrayal – Jews in “Refugee Blues” and soldiers in “Disabled”.
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be assumed that Auden wasn’t exposed to war – he was a civilian asset for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War as well as travelling to China during their war with Japan to write “A Journey to War”. Poems “Disabled” and “Refugee Blues” employ slightly different structures. “Disabled” is written in regular stanzas consisting of six to eight lines each. The stanzas are used by the poet to tell a narrative that takes time in past, present and future. Every stanza switches between past and present to describe his life in a “before” and “after” scenario. This way of poetic storytelling is quite effective, because in this case it allows us to see how far armed conflicts and wars evolve average individuals. The last stanza is written in a future tense in order to show what it (future) would bring to the disabled veteran’s life. It can be said that not much good will come out of it. In a way, Owen makes the atmosphere seem somewhat dystopian, seeing how there was very little reason to continue to live for that soldier, and how his future is already predicted and how he will have to follow regulations set by others… for doing nothing, other than serving his country.
This makes it shocking, considering WWI happened before. Another noticeable feature within the structure of “Disabled” is that it contains a stanza that stands out from the norm. This referred stanza is used to show that there actually were people who could show a sense of appreciation, for example a man in line 2. This is demonstrated in the lines: “Only a solemn man who brought him fruits……Thanked him….”. This quotation is important because Owen embraces the fact that among the spoiled, hypocritical and ungrateful citizens, there were certain individuals who remained committed and loyal to their heroes no matter how ugly the war was going. This stanza lasts only three lines to reflect on the point that the soldier’s life only had very rare and brief moments of hope and that the rest of his time in the institution was boring and agonizing, just like the length of the poem.
Regarding rhyming, “Disabled” is inconsistent in that aspect, as it lacks a rhyming pattern to unify and join the stanzas together. For example: the first stanza rhymes as A,B,A,C,B,C while the second stanza is A,B,C,B,C,D,B. Perhaps the inconsistency of the rhyme is intended to represent either the volatile nature of war or the uncertainty regarding the soldier’s future, although the latter is an unlikely theory. With “Refugee Blues”, the structure of the poem is fairly simple – Auden wrote it as a recreation of blues song. Every stanza within the poem consists of three lines. The poem’s narrative goes within a chronological order, although the stanzas all represent flashbacks, it is most likely that they are in order. Auden’s poem follows a simple rhyming pattern – A,A,B for most of the time.
At the end of each stanza, there is a third line which acts as a summary for the two previous lines and uses repetition. All third lines in the poem include the words “my dear” to represent a long-lasting hope within the hopeless atmosphere. One of the similarities between the structures of the two poems is that both “Refugee Blues” and “Disabled” contain at least one stanza which is three lines in length, albeit for different reasons – Owen wrote it as unique stanza to stand out since it is of lighter tone than the rest of the poem, while Auden constructed his poem to contain no more than three lines for the sake of structuring it as a blues song. On the other hand, there are much more contrasts between the two, for example “R.B.” rhymes most of the time, thanks to its organized structure – the fact that each stanza is only three line long helps maintain the pacing while reading it and therefore, the words rhyme as they should. “Disabled” is less restrictive and relies less on rhyming.
Owen’s piece contains average stanzas with six to eight lines in length. Lastly the other noticeable difference is that “Refugee Blues” has a narrative that follows a chronological order, while W.O.’s poem switches between past and present with each stanza. Both poets W.H. Auden and Wilfred Owen use an expansive variety of different language techniques, such as metaphors, personification, senses, repetition and similes. Most notably, both poems feature similes and repetition. In “Disabled”, similes are used to create an irrational comparison between the protagonist and unrelated, vile, almost animalistic (to display how low he had sank on a social level) things, in this case, disease. A prime example of that would be the quotation: “All of them touch him like some queer disease”.
This quote conveys the poet’s feelings towards how many war veterans were undeservingly alienated from their society. Alternatively, W.H. Auden uses the same technique to compare the extent of liberty given to an animal (fish) and a “sub-human” (as believed by fascists). To show the misery the Jews had to face, this point is given directly from the protagonist. As shown in the subsequent lines: “Saw the fish swimming as if they were free”. From here we can observe the fact that the poem’s main characters – the Jewish refugees had little to no rights at all as their agony made them wish to live as animals – fish in the harbour.
Although this being a somewhat far-fetched attempt, it can be possible to infer that Auden may hold the value of freedom as above of civilization and progress, since it could be assumed that the characters would much rather live a primitive, yet free life than holding a place within an established society. It is ultimately clear that average, innocent citizens, as well as front-line soldiers had their lives greatly affected (in a negative way) by unnecessary wars which doomed their future, and although subtle, similes are a powerful way to depict their struggles. UNFINISHED(repetition/improve similes and do comparison/personification/senses/metaphors)
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