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The Death Bed Siegfried Sassoon

The Death Bed Siegfried Sassoon

We often think about life and death as being two entirely separate conditions. You live, and then you die. But what about the transition between the two?

In ‘The Death Bed’ (1917),1 war poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon explores what it is like to be on the cusp of both life and death, simultaneously fighting against and surrendering to mortality. As the poem delves into the mind of the soldier during his last moments, it highlights the devastating consequences of a merciless war.

'The Death Bed' poem overview

Here's a handy table with key information you'll need before we delve deeper into the meaning of the poem:

Title'The Death Bed'
Written bySiegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)
Year published1917
Type of poemWar poem
Literary devicesImagery, juxtaposition, simile, metaphor, caesura, enjambment, personification, onomatopoeia, rhetorical question
Key themesThe injustice of war

'The Death Bed' poem summary

The poem is divided into seven stanzas of varying lengths and meters. The title of the poem refers to the hospital bed of a gravely injured soldier, where the poem takes place.

The first stanza describes the soldier as being in a state of peaceful half-consciousness as he falls asleep surrounded by silence. Death seems to be close by, but it does not seem threatening.

In the second stanza, the soldier's sleep is interrupted by someone, likely a nurse, giving him water to drink. For a couple of lines, the pain of his wound is dominating. By the end of the stanza, the soldier drifts back into a medicated, painless sleep.

In the third stanza, night comes and the soldier wakes to the movement of the wind. His deteriorating health is made clear as his vision is blurred and he is unable to see the stars.

In the fourth stanza, the sound of rain soothes the soldier before he moves and is taken over by searing pain in the fifth stanza. He is not alone, however. Someone helps to relieve his pain and, for a moment, death feels less imminent.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker wills the reader to support the soldier by connecting with him and thinking of him. The speaker questions the unfairness of the young soldier's death and why this soldier is lying on his death bed while powerful supporters of war continue to live.

In the seventh stanza, death finally comes. Death is described as peaceful and safe, and it is contrasted against the sound of gunshots that continue in the background.

The Death Bed, old hospital gurney, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The title of the poem refers to the hospital bed of the dying soldier.

'The Death Bed' by Siegfried Sassoon theme

The main theme of 'The Death Bed' is the injustice of war. Siegfried Sassoon is well known for exploring this theme as a response to his own experiences as a soldier in the First World War.

Throughout 'The Death Bed', war is presented as something much worse than death. While the pain of his wound and dying body grips the soldier in discomfort and terror, unconsciousness and death are described as states of respite and peace. Also, while death puts an end to the soldier's individual suffering, the suffering at the hands of war is relentless, emphasised by the sound of gunshots that continue in the distance after the soldier dies.

The final two stanzas of the poem address the reader directly, and reflect the poet's political aims to draw attention to the injustice of war.

'The Death Bed' by Siegfried Sassoon literary devices

'The Death Bed' by Siegfried Sassoon is filled with various literary devices that the poet uses to highlight the theme of the injustice of war.

These literary devices include imagery, juxtaposition, simile, metaphor, caesura, enjambment, personification, onomatopoeia, and rhetorical question.

Before we analyse how these literary devices are used in the poem, let's first take a look at what they are:

Literary deviceDescription
ImageryThe use of descriptive language that appeals to our senses
JuxtapositionWhen two or more ideas or images are placed close together to highlight their differences
SimileDrawing a comparison between two objects or ideas by using the words 'like' or 'as', e.g., 'her dog was like a little white cloud on a leash'.
MetaphorDrawing a comparison between two objects or ideas by replacing one object or idea with another, e.g., 'she had a little white cloud on a leash'.
Caesura A break or pause in a poem's meter often created by punctuation
EnjambmentWhen one line of a poem runs into the next
PersonificationWhen human-like attributes are given to non-human objects
OnomatopoeiaWhen the sound of a word imitates what the word represents, e.g., the word 'clap' sounds like clapping hands together when spoken aloud.
Rhetorical questionA question that is asked to generate an effect rather than to get a direct answer

'The Death Bed' line by line analysis

Now we've got an idea about the literary devices that are used in the poem, we can begin our analysis.

Literary devices are used in the poem to explore the soldier's inner experiences in detail as he drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness, life and death. Why do you think the poet might have chosen to focus more on the soldier's inner experiences rather than the external realities of war?

Stanza 1 (lines 1–6)

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.

The soldier's final attempts to remain living while death comes closer are reflected in the juxtaposition of contrasting images of borders and water. On one hand, 'steadfast walls' (lines 1–2) and 'mortal shore' (line 5) suggest boundaries that separate the soldier from being fully alive or dead. On the other hand, images of water in 'Aqueous' (line 3) and 'Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death' (line 6) present death's inevitability – that it will come, no matter what, just as water is always moving with the tides.

Juxtaposing imagery is also used to illustrate the soldier's contrasting feelings of fear and peacefulness in the face of imminent death. In 'Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep' (line 4), 'soaring' suggests a sense of freedom, while 'quivering in the wings' reflects feelings of vulnerability, fear, but also security, like a chick hidden under the wings of its mother.

Stanza 2 (lines 7–15)

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.

Enjambment between lines in the poem, such as 'Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot / The opiate throb and ache that was his wound' (lines 9–10) highlights the blurred boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Abrupt caesuras, created through the use of semi-colons ( ; ), colons ( : ), and dashes ( — ) in lines 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14, are followed by the soldier falling back into unconsciousness, marked by phrases such as 'moaned and dropped' (line 8), 'and forgot' (line 9), 'drifting down' (line 14), and water imagery. This contrast emphasises the peaceful respite from pain that the soldier gets in unconsciousness after brief, painful moments of being awake.

Stanza 3 (lines 16–21)

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.

Sensory imagery that describes the sound and feeling of the wind that wakes the soldier in lines 16 to 18 and the visual perception of 'Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green, / Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes' (lines 20–21), help the reader to connect with the most personal, inner experiences of the soldier.

Metaphor is used to describe the clouds in the sky as 'wraiths' (line 19), or ghostly apparitions that someone sees close before they die, further highlighting the soldier's condition on the cusp of life and death. Although he continues to live through his senses, he also feels the closeness of death.

The Death Bed, blurred lights, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Visual imagery helps us to imagine what the soldier is experiencing.

Stanza 4 (lines 22–27)

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.

The adjectives 'rustling' (line 22), 'pattering' (line 24), 'trickling' (line 26), and 'washing' (line 27), are just a few examples of onomatopoeia in this stanza that reflect the soothing effect that the sound of the rain has on the soldier. At this moment, dying feels like a peaceful process. The natural imagery in this stanza (and throughout the entire poem) also depicts death as a natural process.

Stanza 5 (lines 28–33)

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.

The simile describing pain leaping 'like a prowling beast' (line 29) is used to illustrate the feeling of pain. Because pain is often difficult to describe, the simile associates the feeling with an idea that can be more easily understood.

Both pain and death are personified in the poem. Pain leaps and gropes (lines 29–30) and death 'stepped toward him, paused and stared' (line 32). Although the humanity of the soldier is highlighted throughout the poem through the focus on his senses and inner experiences, the personification of pain and death dominates this stanza, reflecting the dwindling of the soldier's being as he is overcome by these stronger forces in his final moments.

Stanza 6 (lines 34–38)

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?

The poet's political views are made clear in the rhetorical question 'how should he die / When cruel old campaigners win safe through?' (lines 37–38). By directly addressing the reader, the speaker draws attention to the reader's complicity in the continuation of war if they distance themselves from those on the front lines and do not challenge the 'cruel old campaigners' in power who support the war (line 38).

The poem serves as a rallying cry to convince the reader to see the soldiers as humans rather than replaceable weapons of war. This is reflected in the speaker's focus on soldier's inner experiences throughout the poem and the request that the reader connects with and supports the soldier in lines 34 to 36.

Complicity: being involved with or participating in a wrongful act.

Stanza 7 (lines 39–42)

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.

In the final stanza, the soldier no longer resists death, death chooses him and he follows (line 39). Death is described as peaceful nothingness, as a 'summer night' (line 40) and 'Silence and safety' (line 41). This calm description is juxtaposed with the distant 'thudding of the guns' (line 42), expressing how the natural process of death is interfered with by human cruelty in war – transforming death from a fact of life into an unjust tragedy.

The Death Bed - Key takeaways

  • 'The Death Bed' (1917) is a war poem written by Siegfried Sassoon.
  • The poem uses many literary devices, such as imagery, juxtaposition, simile, metaphor, caesura, enjambment, personification, and onomatopoeia.
  • The main theme of the poem is the injustice of war, a topic which Siegfried Sassoon often spoke out about due to his own experiences as a soldier.
  • The poem serves as a rallying cry to convince the reader to see the soldiers as humans rather than as replaceable weapons of war.
  • The poem shows how war changes the natural process of death into an unjust tragedy.

1 Siegfried Sassoon, 'The Death Bed', The Old Huntsman, 1917.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Death Bed Siegfried Sassoon

'The Death Bed' is a poem about the injustice of war. It focuses on the final moments of a dying soldier.

Another adjective to describe someone on their deathbed or close to death is 'moribund'.

The overall tone of 'The Death Bed' is melancholy as the death of the young soldier is presented as an unjust consequence of war.

The main themes of the poem 'The Death Bed' are death and the injustice of war. 

Siegfried Sassoon was an outspoken opposer of the war, which is reflected in his literary works. 

Final The Death Bed Siegfried Sassoon Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'The Death Bed'?

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Answer

Siegfried Sassoon

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Question

What kind of poetry is Siegfried Sassoon known for writing?

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Answer

War poetry

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Question

The poem is about:

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Answer

The horror of death

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Question

When was the poem published?

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Answer

1935

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Question

Which literary devices does the poet use to portray the inner experiences of the soldier?

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Answer

Onomatopoeia 

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Question

What is a caesura?

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Answer

When one line of a poem runs into the next

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Question

What is enjambment? 

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Answer

When one line of a poem runs into the next

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Question

Who does the poem address in the second to last stanza?

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Answer

The powerful campaigners of war

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Question

What noise is described after the soldier has died?

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Answer

The thudding of guns in the distance

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Question

A simile is used to describe the feeling of pain in the fifth stanza. What is pain described like?

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Answer

A sharp knife

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Question

Why does the poet focus on the inner experiences of the soldier rather than the external realities of war?

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Answer

To reduce the distance between the reader and the soldier. To humanise the soldier and to increase the reader's empathy towards him.

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Question

What is juxtaposition?

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Answer

The use of descriptive language that appeals to our senses

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