‘The Death Bed’ by Siegfried Sassoon is a seven stanza poem that is divide into uneven sets of lines. The poem does not conform to a specific pattern of rhyme, but that does not mean that rhyme doesn’t exist in the text. There are a few moments of half, or slant rhymes, as well as rhymes within the lines themselves. This is accomplished through repetition and the strategic placement of similar end sounds.
In regards to half, or slant, rhymes, there is a good example in the first stanza with the words “heaped” and “sleep.” These two words are connected via consonance and assonance, sleep is just missing the extra “d” sound to make it a full rhyme.
Explore The Death Bed
The poem begins with the speaker describing the terrible condition a young soldier is in. The only moments he gets any relief from the pain are those induced by opiates. When asleep, he can drift through his mind on a river. It is a peaceful symbol for death and the afterlife that the young man seems to welcome.
As the poem progresses the contrast between his sleeping and waking worlds is further emphasized. When he moves, he is in incredible agony as if a beast jumped on his body and was trying to tear him apart. Eventually, death comes to his side, and decides it is time for him to go. From there, the two depart, and silence falls again over the hospital ward. The last line reminds the reader that the war rages on right outside the hospital.
You read the full poem here.
The fourth line of the first stanza is a good example of the repetition of sounds within lines. Here, one can see the “-ing” ending used three times, creating an internal rhyme and adding to the overall rhythm of the poem. A similar connection of words occurs in the last line of the fourth stanza with the words “Gently” and “slowly.” Anaphora is another type of repetition. It can be seen when Sassoon chooses to start multiple line with the same word or phrase. One good instance is in stanza two when lines five and six both start with “Water—.”
Alliteration is also a common technique within ‘The Death Bed.’ A number of moments are pointed out within the analysis itself, but an important example is in the fourth and fifth lines of the first stanza with the “s” sound.
Symbols and Images
The strength of this piece is really located in the images created by Sassoon and the way they become symbols for life, death, peace, and misery. For example, water is one of the most prevalent images within the text. When it comes, it is only associated with moments away from the pain. The young man’s boat carries him down a watery path, the rain falls outside his room, soaking into the ground. Then, there are numerous other times in which things are described like water; such as the “waves of death” or the “Aqueaous” silence in the first stanza.
The poem was written while Sassoon was serving in the First World War. With this context in mind, one is able to make a few assumptions about the events that occur within the text. The unnamed soldier who is dying in his hospital bed in the poem was probably injured in battle on the Western Front, the same area where Sassoon fought.
Analysis of The Death Bed
He drowsed and was aware of silence heapedRound him, unshaken as the steadfast walls;(…)Silence and safety; and his mortal shoreLipped by the inward, moonless waves of death.
In the first stanza of ‘The Death Bed’ the speaker begins by referring to the main character of the poem— a young, injured man. The man is on the edge of awareness, fading and out while dozing. Although he is not totally present he is able to take note of the silence in the room. It is so heavy it feels like it is “heaped” around him. Its weight is as real as the “steadfast walls.” The silence represents his impending fate. He is not well and he is not going to get better. Death is on its way.
The next lines are lyrical. Sassoon uses language that depicts the silence as an ephemeral, yet still a physical thing. It is “floating rays of amber light” and it is “quivering in wings of sleep.” The final line of this stanza confirms that the “waves” of “amber light” are in fact part of death.
Someone was holding water to his mouth.He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and droppedThrough crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot(…)Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowersAnd shaken hues of summer: drifting down,He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept.
In the second stanza, the main character is given some water to drink. He doesn’t know who brought it to him but he was “unresisting.” This man is clearly in a lot of pain, the only reactions he has are negative ones as if it causes him great agony to drink. He “moaned” and mentally,
Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot
The opiate throb and ache that was his wound.
These lyrical lines show the depths of the man’s pain, despair, and the mortal nature of his wounds. He is surely going die, but he has more suffering he has to get through before he can. Everything slides away from his mind as he sinks into this darkness. The pain from his wound is gone, as is the “opiate throb” of the drugs being pumped into his body.
The mental landscape he enters into is like “Water.” He is existing in a realm that feels like the “sliding green” water above a “weir.” In the next line, Sassoon’s speaker makes reference to “his boat.” This is very traditional imagery when it comes to one’s path towards the afterlife. It is clearly connected to the river Styx and Charon the ferryman from Greek mythology. The water plays the role of a path or “alley” for his boat.
The land that the young man is sailing through is described beautifully. It is not a scary trip he is on. The scene contains the voices of birds and flowers, reflected in the water. He was in his boat, rowing along, and at the same time sleeping peacefully. These moments of peace are quickly shattered in the next stanza.
Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward,Blowing the curtain to a gummering curve.(…)Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.
The warmth of the second stanza is contrasted immediately with the “wind” and “Night” in the third. The speaker returns to the hospital ward where the world is much crueler than that the soldier experiences when he falls into a deep, opiate-induced sleep. The curtain around his bed blows ominously and in a “gummering curve.” Sassoon’s speaker informs the reader that the man cannot see. When he looks up, there are no stars in the clouds rather, there are,
Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,
Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.
The world has become entirely distorted with something as beautiful as the sky and stars transformed into nothing more than blotches of indistinguishable color. A reader should take note of the use of words like “wraith” and “wandering.” Aide from being an example of alliteration, they also speak to the man’s larger journey. He is headed towards death.
Rain—he could hear it rustling through the dark;Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;(…)Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,Gently and slowly washing life away.
The fourth stanza of ‘The Death Bed’ has six lines and begins with another reference to water. There is “Rain” falling. Although he can’t see it, he can hear. It is “rustling through the dark.” This makes it seem like it has some kind of intention, and also draws attention to how things change when one can’t see, but can hear, them.
The same thing occurs in the second and third lines as the speaker describes the young man as hearing and smell,
Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;
Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers
These showers, he knows, “soak the woods.” Similarly to the water in the second stanza, the rain is not scary. It isn’t a downpour. Rather, it comes down as a peaceful trickle. It is “washing life away.” This is a process that the speaker and the young man welcome. If it means an end to the pain, and a return to the warmth of summer (also mentioned in the second stanza).
He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain(…)And death, who’d stepped toward him, paused and stared.
Unfortunately for the young man, he stirs slightly in the fifth stanza. Moving out of the peaceful world of the drugs and out of the trance of the rain. The pain that had dissipated for the time comes roaring back “like a prowling beast.” It,
gripped and tore
His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs.
Here again, is another instance of alliteration that helps to further the brutal image of how the pain savages the young man’s body. Luckily, it is only temporary and soon someone comes to his side, perhaps the same person who gave him water. This doctor or nurse administered medicine and “soon he lay / Shuddering.” The “evil” of the pain was gone and in its place was “death.”
As is common within poetry, death is personified. It is not something he enters into, but something that comes to him and acts upon him. Death had come forward as the young man writhed in pain and when the soldier was at peace again he “paused and stared.”
Light many lamps and gather round his bed.(…)When cruel old campaigners win safe through?
In the sixth stanza of ‘The Death Bed’ the speaker seems to urge anyone listening to come to the man’s side. Death is right there, looking down on the young man and ready to take him whenever he chooses. This is a critical moment and the speaker senses it. He asks that someone,
Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
Perhaps if they light up the room, bring some warmth to his side, and will him to live with their “eyes” and “warm blood” then everything will be okay. This is another instance of warmth as a symbol of goodness. While he wants the pain to stop for the young man, he also doesn’t want him to die.
The speaker emphasizes the unfairness of this whole situation by stating that the man “hated war” and that he should not have to die for something he didn’t believe in. The last line is formatted as a question directed at anyone listening. The speaker does not expect an answer, because there isn’t one, besides saying that the man shouldn’t have to die.
He speaks on the fact that the war the young man fought in, World War I, was a war set into motion by “old campaigners.” These old military men and politicians did not have to suffer for the war they began, they are “safe” and happy in their “win.”
But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,(…)Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.
The last stanza of ‘The Death Bed’ is only four lines long—a quatrain. Despite the speaker’s pleas in the sixth stanza death is not deterred. After taking a pause, he looks down at the young man and says “‘I choose him.”’ With this simple statement, “he went.” These two short words are about both death and the soldier. Together, they left the world of pain and hospital wards and softly falling rain.
Although the speaker gave that initial pushback against the idea of death, it is clear that once the young man is gone, things are more peaceful. He states that,
there was silence in the summer night;
Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
The same sleep that the young man enjoyed in the second stanza is now forever. He can sail down the river and into a land that is hopefully as warm and peaceful, full of flowers and birds, as the days before he was a soldier.
At the same time, “far away” there is still the “thudding of guns.” For this young man, the war is over, but with this last line, the speaker reminds the reader that for many many more it continues on. There will be innumerable deaths before the end, and countless moments like the ones recounted in ‘The Death Bed’ in which young men struggle through their last moments until death chooses them.