Sassoon is highly regarded as one of the greatest poets of the First World War; being a soldier himself, he offers a personal account of the horrors and traumas he experienced whilst fighting in War. ‘The Death Bed’ is a chilling poem about a soldier who’s slipping into death, and his final living moments on earth.
This analysis is tailored towards GCSE, IGCSE, and A-Level students (CIE / Cambridge, WJEC / Eduqas, OCR, CCEA, Edexcel exam boards), but it is suitable for anyone studying the poem at a higher level.
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The Death-Bed He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls; Aqueous like floating rays of amber light, Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep. Silence and safety; and his mortal shore Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death. . Someone was holding water to his mouth. He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot The opiate throb and ache that was his wound. Water — calm, sliding green above the weir; Water — a sky-lit alley for his boat, Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers And shaken hues of summer: drifting down, He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept. . Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward, Blowing the curtain to a gummering curve. Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud; Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green, Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes. . Rain — he could hear it rustling through the dark; Fragrance and passionless music woven as one; Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace, Gently and slowly washing life away. . He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain Leaped like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs. But someone was beside him; soon he lay Shuddering because that evil thing had passed. And death, who’d stepped toward him, paused and stared. . Light many lamps and gather round his bed. Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live. Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet. He’s young; he hated war; how should he die When cruel old campaigners win safe through? . But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went, And there was silence in the summer night; Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep. Then, far away, the thudding of the guns. Siegfried Sassoon
Death-Bed — the bed that a person lies in as they are dying
Drowsed — slept lighty
Steadfast — firm, strong, unmoving
Aqueous — like water, or made out of water
Quivering — shivering, trembling, moving up and down
Mortal — human, able to die
Lipped — lapped, as in when water ebbs and flows on the edge of something
Crimson — a deep red colour
Opiate — a reference to morphine, used as a heavy sedative and painkiller
Weir — a low dam built across a river
Gummering — a way of deepening or enlarging spaces between the teeth of a saw
Wraiths — ghosts or images
Queer — odd / strange
Pattering — the noise of heavy rain as it hits the earth
Prowling — the slow, predatory movement that a large animal makes
Campaigners — people who set up a campaign (a military or political mission)
Veils — thin fabric coverings
Thudding — a heavy sound that occurs as a result of great force
The soldier was nodding off to sleep, he was aware of the silence that surrounded him, it seemed as strong as the firm walls; the silence was also like liquid — ‘like floating rays of amber light’, it was like air as it soared and hovered around him. He was surrounded by silence and safety, although he himself was hovering between life and death.
Someone brought him water, and he drank it with a moan of pain before he lost consciousness, forgetting the pain of his wound that had been turned by opiates into a dull throb. In a half-dream state he saw calm, green water in a dam, the water was lit up by the sky and it provided an alley for his boat, the scene was full of birdsong and there were flowers along the border of the water, it shone with the colours of summer. He chose to drift down the alley, dipping his oars into the water and sleeping.
A gust of wind came through the hospital ward, and the soldier woke up and noticed it was night time. The wind blew ripples in the curtain. He was blind in the darkness, the ghost-like clouds hiding the starlight. He started to see spots of purple, red, and green float into his vision, as he was on the verge of passing out again.
He heard rain, it rustled in the dark. It made passionless music, without any scent. He could hear warm rain slowly drooping the roses, showers that soak the woods, it was not the harsh rain that appears in a storm, such as the rain that sweeps in after the sound of thunder. Instead, it was a trickling sound that brought peace with it, gently and slowly washing life away.
He moved a little, and as he shifted his body a sharp, vicious pain attacked him — ripping at his dreams and forcing him back into consciousness and reality. Someone was beside him, and he lay there shuddering after the pain had passed. Death had arrived, and he stopped and looked at him.
The poem shifts a little in voice here, telling readers to do everything they can for the soldier — light lamps for him, lend him our eyes and blood, and our will to live. Speak to him, wake him from his sleep and we still may have a chance to save him. He was young, he hated war, why should he have been the one to die when the campaigners, the men who made the war happen, all life safely away from conflict and death?
But Death replied, ‘I choose him’, and so the man died. There was silence and safety in the summer night, and veils of sleep — curtains, blankets, shrouds for coffins. In the distance, the sound of guns carried on.
The speaker is a third-person narrator who recounts a tale about a soldier on his deathbed. From the title, we can assume that the soldier is dying, but this still doesn’t stop us from hoping that he’ll live in the end. The speaker reminds us that he has sacrificed his future and any happiness or love he may have found, for the vision of military strategists and politicians who started the war and will never directly be killed by it or fight in it. There is a sense of tragedy, hypocrisy, and unfairness that mirrors Sassoon’s own political stances on war after being a soldier and experiencing his friends, comrades, and brother die in battle.
Dream-like atmosphere — the soldier is taking opiates as painkillers, and this enhances the feeling of him being half-awake, half asleep and experiencing the world in a dream state: words such as ‘drowsed’, ‘aqueous’, ‘floating’, ‘quivering’, ‘lipped’ and ‘crimson gloom’ create a sense of reality that is slightly altered from normal, as though the boundary between life and death, or between conscious and subconscious, is starting to blur for the dying man.
Colour symbolism — a range of contrasting colours are used in the poem, from the ‘amber light’ that floats in the soldier’s hospital room, to the ‘crimson gloom’ he slips into after drinking, and the ‘green’ water he dreams of as it leads his boat away. Amber as a colour perhaps represents twilight, the moment where day turns into night, which symbolically implies the boundary between life and death — the state that the soldier is in. It is also the colour of liquid morphine, the opiate that the soldier has been given. ‘Crimson’, on the other hand, is a deep red colour, symbolising pain, bleeding, or perhaps life force. ‘Green’ in the poem, used to describe the water in the dream, is comparatively soothing and peaceful.
Repetition — ‘silence and safety’ this soothing phrase with its sibilant ‘s’ sounds first is used at the opening of the poem to describe the hospital room, which is peaceful, away from the ‘guns’ and warfare. It then also extends to describe death at the poem’s close, implying that death is peaceful, protective, and welcoming — a gentle respite after the harrowing violence of life.
The extended metaphor of water — throughout the poem, an extended metaphor of water is used as a peaceful, soothing, and nullifying force of nature. The light is ‘aqueous’, water-like, as it hits the walls, and he is ‘Lipped… by the moonless waves of death’. The soldier then dreams of ‘Water — a sky-lit alley for his boat’, a vision of paddling a boat up a river to take him away from life into the realms of death — a common metaphor used for the transition of life to death, such as the river Styx (see the context for more info). The soothing ‘rain’ that occurs outside the hospital also acts as a calming, purifying force — a ‘trickling peace / Soothing and washing life away’. There is also a tragic tone created here through the symbolism of the ‘drooping roses’, roses typically represent love and romance, so combined with the adjective ‘drooping’ they suggest that the soldier’s chances of finding love and marriage in life are now over, as he is slipping into death.
Imperative verbs — in the penultimate stanza there is a tonal shift as the narrative voice becomes more assertive, using imperative verbs to direct readers to hope and pray for the soldier’s recovery: ‘light many lamps’, ‘gather round his bed’, ‘lend him your eyes, warm blood and the will to live’ — the tripartite structure of this final phrase is particularly emphatic as it implies that other humans should try and work together to help in the soldier’s healing process, implying both physical and spiritual ways in which they can assist him — ‘warm blood’ perhaps signifying a blood transfusion, and ‘the will to live’ a more spiritual or philosophical energy. The attempts, however, are futile as ‘Death’ is ultimately a more powerful force, personified as a figure who speaks in the final stanza as he claims the life of the soldier.
STRUCTURE / FORM
The stanzas shift focus between consciousness and a dream state — demonstrate the way in which the soldier himself is slipping in and out of awareness of his surroundings. Each stanza starts with a focal shift — abstract nouns such as ‘Rain’, ‘Night’ signify a suddenly abrupt shift back into awareness. The indefinite pronoun ‘Someone’ also demonstrates how he is semi-conscious and only half-aware of his surroundings. Though the second stanza, describing a dream, is longer than the rest (9 lines, with an average of 6 per stanza), the final two stanzas seem as though they are shortening in length — 5 lines, and then 4. This amplifies the effect of the soldier slipping into death.
Caesurae — long pauses (caesurae) are used several times in the poem, perhaps to imply shock or a brief moment of confusion before the soldier is able to grasp his surroundings. For instance, he wakes to ‘Rain — he could hear it rustling through the dark;’, the dash creates a longer and more dramatic pause here; the readers pause too in reading this line. The caesurae are also combined with anaphora in the second stanza, two lines of which begin with ‘Water -’; this serves to emphasise the word and underscore its metaphorical importance in the poem.
Written in 1916 — the First World War began in 1914, two years in many soldiers had lost their lives or been severely injured, yet there was no sign of the war ending — this led to significant disillusionment and criticism, particularly from those, like Sassoon, who had themselves fought in the war.
Death as a figure and the use of water — the figure of Death, who appears in the poem to take the soldier’s life, is a commonly used literary and spiritual trope — Death often is figured as a ‘grim reaper’ type figure, but also as the Biblical angel of death (Azrael). The figure is ambiguously described in this poem, and so he could be either of these tropes — Sassoon himself was Christian and so perhaps the latter interpretation better fits with his religious beliefs. However, the image of the body of water carrying the soldier off to another land is also quite Classical in origin, a reference to the river Styx which was said to separate the living world from the underworld, and therefore we can see that Sassoon does mix Christian and Classical symbolism together in the poem.
Sassoon was from a wealthy family and had a mostly positive life from his birth in 1886 until his enlistment in the First World War (1914–18). He studied at the University of Cambridge (although he never completed his degree), playing sports and writing poetry. In May 1915 he went to fight in France, earning the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ because he was both brave and chaotic in his approach to fighting. His brother Hamo was killed at Gallipoli later that year, and in summer 1916 Sassoon returned to England with a fever. He went out to fight again but returned once more in April 1917 due to an injury. He was by this point a decorated war hero who had won several awards, as well as having his war poetry published, but he started to become disillusioned with war and began speaking out against it. This caused public controversy, and the government wanted to court marshall him (prosecute him for crimes against the country), but it was instead ruled that he suffered from ‘shell shock’, a post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers often experience after combat, and so he was sent to recover in a military hospital at Craiglockhart, where he met fellow poet Wilfred Owen, another of the most famous English war poets.
Critic John Hildebie has called Sassoon an ‘accidental hero’, meaning that before WWI his poetry was less grand or serious in theme, and more for entertainment than for deeper literary purposes. Equally, Sassoon’s early life was spent in the enjoyment of country living and sport, rather than heroism or service, all of which changed when he entered the war. He was a greatly changed man after the war, and many feel he never truly recovered from his experiences. Pail Fussell stated that with the experience of war he ‘unleashed a talent for irony and satire… that had been sleeping during his pastoral youth’. Sassoon also referred to himself as ‘a religious poet’, showing anger and frustration at the fact that many critics overlooked this aspect of his work.
Dying is similar to slipping in and out of a dream-state — from the title, we know the soldier is dying as he is on his ‘Death-Bed’. He slips in and out of consciousness as he passes his last few hours, days, or weeks (the time frame is deliberately unclear) on earth. The dream state is likely amplified by the opiates he has been given as painkillers, as morphine and opium are known to enhance the feeling of dreams, but this feeling also functions symbolically to imply that the soldier is slipping between the realms of life and death — almost as if his dreams give him visions of the transition to the afterlife, such as the vision of floating in the water on a boat being similar to the idea of the river Styx. Sassoon was himself wounded in 1917 and forced to return home — although this was after writing the poem, so perhaps he was drawing on the experiences of others for this particular piece.
Soldiers who die before they have found love and happiness in life, die tragically — there is a sense that the loved ones of the soldier cannot help him, no matter whether they stand to watch or hope or pray for his recovery — it is almost like a night vigil towards the end of the poem, where it feels as though those who wish for the soldier to live must stay awake through the night and focus all of their attention on him, but their efforts are to no avail as Death claims the man anyway. The imagery of the ‘drooping roses’ also implies that the soldier has not found love or partnership in life, and there is a heightened sense of tragedy at the end of the poem when we realise that he never will.
The men who start wars are not those who suffer and die for them — The second to last stanza contains a rhetorical question: ‘He’s young; he hated war; how should he die
When cruel old campaigners win safe through?’At this point, it feels as though Sassoon’s own voice and sociopolitical opinions are coming through most clearly. He directly exposes the hypocrisy of war to his audience — those who are young, innocent, and dying are not those who have any power to change or stop the warfare, the ‘cruel old campaigners’ who are responsible for starting the war are already wealthy, powerful, fulfilled in many ways in their lives — and they are stealing the lives of young men whom they force to die for their cause. Particularly tragically, we are told that the man ‘hated war’, leading us to assume that he was non-violent himself and somewhat forced into the decision of becoming a soldier, then unprepared for the reality of the violence he had to face.
- Life’s Purpose
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