The Dead-Beat - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Dead-Beat

Owen gives an account of a soldier who is no longer able to function despite threats. We hear the man’s desire for revenge and that he may be thinking of people at home rather than those he’s fighting. The reactions of his comrades, the stretcher-bearers and the doctor become less and less sympathetic as the man is moved away from the front line trench where he first collapsed, to the dressing station where he dies, despite being unwounded.

WWI stretcher bearers

Investigating The Dead Beat

  • As an officer Owen cared deeply for the men under his command. Where do Owen’s sympathies lie in this poem (remember he is the officer who threatened the man with his revolver)?
  • Compare The Dead-Beat to The Letter which is also about death on the front.

Commentary on The Dead-Beat


The poem was written at Craiglockhart in 1917, where Owen had been sent to recover from shell-shock and the recurring dreams of the war which haunted him. It was later revised at Ripon in 1918. 

This is one of the earliest of Owen's anti-war poems and the first he wrote after meeting Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon had a huge influence on Owen. He advised him to write from experience which Owen does in this poem, exploring mental breakdown and using direct conversation to break up his descriptive poetry.

One of the men in Owen’s own platoon had suffered in the same way as the dead-beat. He was unable to obey the order to get up even when Owen pointed his revolver at his head. In his first draft Owen wrote the actual words of the Medical Officer:

                             That dirt
You sent me down last night’s just died. So glad! l.19-20

Some critics think that the word ‘dirt’ has been substituted by Owen for a less acceptable word for excrement. Under Sassoon’s influence Owen satirises the complacent civilians on the home front, the ‘bold uncles’ and ‘the valiant, that aren’t dead’.

Investigating commentary of The Dead Beat

  • Acknowledging Sassoon’s significant influence, how important is Owen’s own role in this poem?
  • How do the man’s dreams relate to his breakdown?
  • How effective is Owen’s use of actual speech in the poem?
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