Loss in the many forms it comes in is a common theme in literacy texts, causing readers to reflect on the meaning of the life and the hope that has been lost. In ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘Out, out’ by Robert Frost, this theme evokes even more sadness in the reader as the loss is so tragic due to the victims being young people, who had all their lives before them, and whose lives have subsequently been pointlessly wasted. This essay will focus on the ways both poets highlight the tragedy of this loss of young life by examining the nature of the loss, the heartlessness of other people, and the context in which it happens.
Both poems present very different kinds of tragic loss of young life. The young boy in ‘Out, out-` is the victim of what seems to be a random accident, his hand is cut off by the snarling ‘buzz saw’. Yet from the start, Frost implies that a sinister force is present; the buzz saw is presented as both an inhuman, unfeeling machine, and an evil force, ‘snarling’ like a savage beast waiting to attack its prey which in this case is the boy. When the boy’s sister announces ‘Supper’, with terrifying speed, the saw, ‘As if to prove that saws knew what supper meant Leaped out at the boy’s hand or seemed to leap – He must have given the hand.’ The horrifying implication is that the saw has been waiting for the signal to spring like a wild animal at its prey, and that it literally ‘devours’ the boy. More frighteningly the phrases of uncertainty like ‘As if’, ‘seemed’ and ‘must have’ deliberately create a sense of uncertainty. The speaker leaves the reader to decide whether the boy has been the tragic victim of a plot of fate to destroy his young life before it has barely begun as he is always referred to as ‘the boy’ or whether this has been an utterly meaningless accident, a complete waste of a young life.
The tragic loss in ‘Disabled’ is equally horrific, because it has been brought on by a deliberate action of the young man himself. He has been seduced by the propaganda depicting World War I as a glamorous kind of adventure, ‘He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears.’
Completely ignorant to the horrors of trench warfare, barbed wire and poison gas, he imagines that the war is a kind of story-book romance the remark made about ‘daggers in plaid socks’ suggests that he might have been thinking of romantic stories of war a child fantasises about in their youth. He has also imagined war as a kind of sport: ‘One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, After the matches.’ In his ignorance, he equates his sporting scratch and the injury he might maintain in war. Therefore, there’s a sense of cruel irony in the fact that his injury was indeed a wound to his leg but one which drained his blood, destroying his life- ‘And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.’ What makes this so tragic is that only after he becomes disabled does he understand that his pride caused him to become mislead– ‘Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts’. Here again, we see that in his imagination, the poor, innocent boy thought the war was going to be an adventure not the barbaric, bloodbath it was.
What makes the loss in both poems so tragic is the disregard shown around the young victims. The boy’s death has been futile and meaningless, and his life seemed to have led to no trace of grief. Shockingly, the poem ends on a cold, hard note- ‘No more to build on there. And they, since they, we’re not the one dead, turned to their affairs.’ The heartless disregard of even the sister is presented in the phrase ‘turned to their affairs’, implying that their focus moved away from the boy and that he was forgotten and so they carried on with their lives as if he had never existed.
There is a different kind of heartlessness in ‘Disabled’. This young man who was once a sporting hero, is now just a label in the eyes of others – ‘Disabled’, patronized by a visiting priest. Like the boy in Frost’s poem, he too is shunned, but not out of carelessness. In his case, it is out of disgust. The girls who used to run after him now ‘touch him like some queer disease’. The cruelty of this simile comes out in the word ‘queer’, implying that he is not only disfigured, but also confections, and that simply touching him would infect them. This is made even sadder by the contrast with his pre-war life, when ‘Town used to swing so gay’, and he was surrounded by girls who ‘glanced lovelier as the air grew dim’. There is a different kind of darkness in his life now, as he sits, ‘waiting for dark’ and the death that it symbolizes. Frost uses the idea of darkness in a similar way, through his reference to ‘the sunset far into Vermont’, with its symbolic suggestion that the sun has set on the life of the boy.
Death also seems to be a tragic theme in literature, but in these poems, it is even more devastating due to the pointless loss of young lives that both poets place at the heart of the story’s tragedy. The tragedy is further highlighted by the cruel disregard of other people, who turn away from the victim, as if his wasted life was not a loss. The fact that no one is left to mourn for the victims is possibly the most tragic aspect of these poems.