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> > > > The war poetry of Keith Douglas, Alan Ross, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas

20 May 2014

Owen Lowery, author of Otherwise Unchanged, published by Carcanet, and recipient of a recent Unlimited award offers a critique of the war poetry of Keith Douglas, Alan Ross, and Wilfred Owen. In contrasting the styles of these poets recording their experience of war, Lowery examines his own approach to recording the impact of impairment ‘in extremis’

This is a plate from Wilfred Owen's 1920 Poems by Wilfred Owen, showing the author side-on, dressed in his military uniform

Plate from Poems by Wilfred Owen, (Chatto & Windus 1920)

Writing in 1943, during his military service in North Africa and the Middle East, Keith Douglas used the term ‘extrospective’ to define his contemporary poetry. Douglas framed his classification through a comparison with what he considered to be more romantic, lyrical, and musical verse, on the basis that the latter lacked the practicality to engage with ‘our problems and what we have to do about them.’  For Douglas, his problems were largely those faced by a soldier living and fighting in an unfamiliar environment, having to come to terms with the very real possibility of death or injury, as well as the alienation that accompanied his exile. 

Unsurprisingly, these concerns dominate much of the writing that Douglas began to produce after he left England in 1941, left a safe staff posting, and drove into the desert with his batman to take part in the Second Battle of El Alamein. In 'Alamein to Zem Zem', Douglas’s prose record of his experiences as a combatant, frequent references are made to physical injury and the distinction between life and death. When describing the figure of a dead Libyan soldier, Douglas writes objectively and dispassionately, in keeping with his extrospective ambition: 

As I looked at him, a fly crawled up his cheek and across the dry pupil of his unblinking right eye. I saw that a pocket of dust had collected in the trough of the lower lid. The fact that for two minutes he had been lying so close to me, without my noticing him, was surprising: it was as though he had come there silently and taken up his position since our arrival.  

The same neutral fascination is evident, not only in the line drawings with which the young soldier accompanied his prose, but in the allusions to death and injury that occur in Douglas’s poetry. Whether recording a German artillery man’s ‘burst stomach like a cave’,  in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, or the stark reality of ‘Cairo Jag’, in which ‘a man with no head / has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli’,  the emphasis is on practicality, with the physical impact of combat being presented without ornamentation. 

Similar traits characterise Alan Ross’s poetry, which also reacts to his experience of battle in the Second World War, though Ross fought at sea, rather than in the desert. Ross’s ‘Captain’s Fur Collar’ provides a particularly graphic portrait of an injured officer who was found:

Bolt upright on the edge
Of his bunk two decks below,
Eye dangling like a monocle, face like snow. 

Lacking from the poetry that Douglas and Ross created in response to death and injury, is any overt pity, which contrasts markedly with Wilfred Owen’s ‘Disabled’, for example, in which the poet provides a portrait of an ex-serviceman who has been left as an amputee by the First World War. While Douglas and Ross are objective, Owen speculates on his protagonist’s thoughts, and attempts to understand his state of mind: 

To-night 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?  

‘Disabled’ may be typical of Owen’s humanism, but, in his attempt to evoke the pity of war, he is guilty of presenting a stereotypical portrayal of his subject, as disability is associated with impotence, age, and death. We are told ‘Now, he is old; his back he will never brace.’  We are also told that the former soldier has little, or no future: 

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.  

Owen’s aim may have been better served by the more pragmatic perspective of Douglas’s or Ross’s poetry, or that of his First World War contemporary, Edward Thomas, for whom, in ‘The Team’s Head Brass’, permanent injury is simply a possible outcome of combat, part of the bargain, and of casual conversation: 

‘Have you been out?’ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps?’
‘If I could only come back again, I should. 
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why so, 
I should want nothing more.’ 

In my own poems on the subject of extremis, particularly those written in response to the two years that I spent in hospital following a spinal injury, and my subsequent paralysis, I have been conscious of leaning towards the objective approach embodied by Thomas, Douglas, and Ross.

This does not mean that intimacy and personal reflection are avoided, however, as ‘Out-patients, Southport Spinal Unit’ indicates. In this poem, the first-person speaker is both a participant in the drama, and an observer, allowing him to step back from the action when necessary, but also permitting a direct engagement with a second person, to whom the poem is addressed.

The first two figures are joined by a partially-sighted and wheelchair-user, out-patient, whose condition is initially described in extrospective terms, as ‘sight through blue glass’, or ‘a listening eye’, before he becomes the focus of interaction that involves all three of the poem’s protagonists. The second-person assists the partially-sighted man, before rejoining the speaker: 

Then you were back
to being mine, switched
from that other beauty of yours,
Lord knows I’ve had
more than anyone to thank,
somewhere near relaxing. 

An extrospective approach is also essential to my ‘Early morning on the ward’, in which an attempt is made to come to terms with the unique and disorienting environment of an intensive care ward. In particular, ‘Early morning on the ward’ is concerned with the hallucinations that I experienced due to a combination of sensory deprivation and the drugs that I was being administered. 

Where Douglas’s battlefield poetry confronts the distinction between the illusory brevity of life, and the practical reality of injury and death, ‘Early morning on the ward’ juxtaposes the regularity of ward routine, with an alternative reality, in which

A fakir melts from rope
he’s suspended from the ceiling,
stretches a lean finger
and snakes a peach from my fruitbowl. 

Writing extrospectively allows the real and the surreal to be considered, and accepted on equal terms, with the same being true of the able-bodied and paralysed subjects of ‘A frieze depicting four centaurs’. On the one hand, 

A girl-friend or a sister is playing tennis
moving as if her shadow doesn’t know. 

On the other hand, she is watched by four spinally-injured patients, each of whom is described as an individual, partly characterised by the nature of the accident in which they were injured, and partly by their personalities:

John adores the sun with oil
plastered in nurse’s handfuls on skin
brown in the way his holiday knew
diving from a boat in too little water.

Wheeled into place on his immediate right
a part of Tom has stayed a boxer
familiar with John Conteh, looking
so much like him, he could almost be him. 

Reflecting on the experience of hospitalisation and paralysis in the dispassionate tone used by Douglas, Ross, and Thomas, allows the extremis associated with these situations to emerge from any pity with which they might otherwise have been viewed, and to be faced and dealt with as practical realities. This, in turn, offers the possibility of a positive reaction, of a future beyond the limited scope of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Disabled’, and of disability as a starting point for further experience, together with poetry based on that experience.


Keith Douglas, The Letters, ed. Desmond Graham, (Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2000)
Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem, ed. Desmond Graham, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992)
Keith Douglas, Complete Poems, ed. Desmond Graham, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Alan Ross, Poems, (London: The Harvill Press, 2005)
Wilfred Owen, War Poems and Others, ed. Dominic Hibberd, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1978)
Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, ed. Edna Longley, (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Limited , 2008)
Owen Lowery, Otherwise Unchanged, (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012)

Please click on this link to Unlimited to find out more about Owen Lowery's commission


Claire McLaughlin

26 September 2014

I was very interested and impressed by this article. I know the poetry of Wilfred owen and Edward Thomas, but not the work of Keith Douglas and Anthony Ross. I absolutely agree that pity, and perhaps even empathy, are inadequate responses to disability – one’s own or someone else’s – though I can’t help wanting to say in Wilfred Owen’s defence that ‘Disabled’ is surely not one of his best poems, and that it is inevitably conditioned by contemporary attitudes to disability, and is an expression of outrage, undoubtedly designed to draw attention to those who had only survived World War I at the cost of serious life-long impairment.

I also think the 'extrospective’ is essential – but that it, too, on its own, is inadequate. As a person, and a poet, who gradually lost her sight over a period of fifteen years, “my problem, and what I have to do about it” has involved not only understanding the nature of my practical difficulties and researching and acquiring the skills to make them less telling, but working with the feelings I had about my blindness – rage, grief, a sense of isolation – and the feelings and emotional attitudes other people brought to it – such as pity, emotional distancing, an unconscious sense of superiority.

These feelings come to people unbidden, and I think they must be ‘had’, and understood, and worked through, before a clear-headed assessment of the actual facts of the case is possible – and surely there is a place in poetry for the struggle with these feelings and attitudes, as part of the inner journey every disabled person has to make?

But perhaps any really good poem on the subject of disability must attempt both perspectives, and in the quotation he gives us from his ‘A Frieze of Centaurs’ (what a marvellous title) I feel Owen Lowery does just this: the detail of the surface is so beautifully chosen and observed that it suggests the depths that lie beneath, and evokes in us a subtle awareness of the thoughts and feelings the poet has had to negotiate before he could arrive at this precarious objectivity.

Wendy Young

2 June 2014

Thank you for bring Keith Douglas to my senses. I love the John Conteh line - is that yours?

I love Wilfred Owen and I suppose at the time he lived there was a sentimentality or harsh attitude depending on a person's education or sensitivity about disabled people - even in the 80s an older Irish woman referred to a man she worked with as 'deaf and dumb - poor clown' to which I put her straight in the best possible way. My own mother was sensitive to others - not patronising - 'that poor man's deaf' (seeing a man with a Walkman in London and would not have it when I tried explaining)but she herself was called vile names for being deaf.

Colin Hambrook

24 May 2014

There is the sense that Wilfred Owen is talking about a terrible reality where disabled soldiers back from the war were left to beg on the streets alongside their families; their women and children.

And there is also a sense that in trying to evoke a feeling of humanity in his reader he is actually sentimentalising peoples’ predicament. Disabled' is undoubtedly a powerful poem but is equally full of stereotypes about disability, especially those of asexuality and helplessness.

Anthony Hurford

24 May 2014

I'm unhappy with myself I speculated on fear for Wilfred Owen or any other motivation, please consider this retraction of it.

Anthony Hurford

24 May 2014

Owen, I read this the other day and was very impressed by your view and this introduction to these poets (I've read Edward Thomas and a little Wilfred Owen, but not the others). But what strikes me is what you say about Wilfred Owen not being able to capture what the others can by their distancing technique (I hope I remember and understood correctly) - I wondered for Owen if the trap he feel into was a function of fear (I wonder, but I do not doubt his bravery) of this very real possibility, or maybe of his drive to survive (and I find his view to also be distancing of himself somehow - not a full perspective). But I also wondered if it would not also have been possible to write in his less dispassionate way if he had got to know this part of life better - though I have no doubt that would have been a difficult journey, and may be one which the world's view of disability remains on. I write with caution, my own disability is not physical. I wonder if the dispassionate tone may help, as you say it has helped yourself (and I have been greatly impressed by your selection on DAO)-- but also wonder if Owen's approach may be guided into a leap of its own into a fuller humanism and appreciation of people beyond the trap you note he fell into.

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