The Dead-Beat

One of the earliest of Owen's "war" poems (Craiglockhart August 1917 but revised at Ripon the following year), it was also among the first to be published after the war. It bears all the marks of Siegfried Sassoon's influence.

On 22nd August 1917, to his cousin Leslie Gunston, he confessed that having now met Sassoon twice he was determined to write "something in Sassoon's style, which I may as well send you." The next day he added, "He (Sassoon) was struck with THE DEAD-BEAT but pointed out that the facetious bit was out of keeping with the first and last stanzas. Thus the piece as a whole is no good." Whether that summing up was Sassoon's or Owen's isn't clear. However, the revised version, eliminating the "facetious bit", was certainly an improvement, and though not among his very best work, THE DEAD-BEAT remains an effective piece of brutal realism.

It describes one particular incident in dramatic form, and the attacking style and the colloquial diction place it very much in Sassoon's mode.

A soldier whose mind and spirit have been broken as the result of war is suspected (and condemned) of malingering. Although not physically wounded, he dies, the victim of malicious and sinister forces.

Set in a front-line trench, the action is contained within four irregularly rhymed stanzas. Metrically the basic iambic pentameter is broken rhythmically by the use, first of multi-syllables, and second the caesura (a natural pause or breathing space within the line). The rather disjointed effect fits the disturbing nature of the theme.

Why is this unfortunate man dead beat? Despite recently having undergone a severe bombardment (16) -

"It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun." (14) says whoever among his persecutors has "a low voice". If true, it's not exposure to war that's destroyed him but perhaps news from home of -

"…….his brave young wife, getting her fun (12)

she being one of those women whom Owen disapproved of and dispraised. (Unfairly in most cases, we might think, for the men who fought were not the only ones who suffered; wives, girl friends, mothers in countless numbers had cause to weep.)

Whatever the reason for the man's condition, there's a puzzle here. Dead beat now, next day dead.

"That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray! (19) Mind gone we can understand. But body too. Without being wounded (16). The poem provides no certain answer.

Though sometimes quick to condemn, Owen is seldom slow to condemn himself as well as others (not only brave young wives but bold uncles too.) He blames himself, implicitly, in INSPECTION, and explicitly, in MENTAL CASES, and he does so here as the angle character whose viewpoint it is. "None of us could kick him to his feet" (3), "Just blinked at my revolver" (4), "We sent him down….." (15). It is a deliberate sharing of the guilt. There is no attempt to dissociate himself from the savage treatment that is being handed out.

Two images illustrate the contempt in which the Dead-Beat is held by those who sit in judgement: the dehumanising similes in line 2 -

Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat.

As in SPRING OFFENSIVE, STRANGE MEETING, THE SENTRY etc, Owen makes effective use of body imagery. Note the winks of the stretcher-bearers (17) and the "well-whiskied laugh" of the doctor (18), and before that the sinister smiles of the bold uncles. Smiles and laughs - such essentially innocent expressions of feeling. But not here!

Irony is at work of course, and there's a lot of that in THE DEAD-BEAT. Are those non-combatants who are safely out of the way "valiant" (10) as "bold" (11) or "brave" (12)? Not in Owen's book.

"It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun." (14). The Hun? If it's barbarians we're looking for we'll not find them here among the Germans. What remark more barbaric than the doctor's disgraceful malediction?

The stretcher-bearers wink, the Doc laughs. They find it amusing. These are supposedly the life-savers, men engaged in acts of mercy. The dreadful irony is that he who is dead beat through no fault of his own should be in conflict, not with the enemy he's been sent to fight, but with those who belong on his own side.


Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001