The Dead-Beat - Language, tone and structure

Language in The Dead-Beat

Colloquial language

Owen purposely chooses this ambiguous title to show how people view the situation differently. The phrase ‘dead-beat’ is a colloquial term for the fatigue which soldiers suffered at the front but it is also an informal term for an idle layabout - ‘scum’ l.20. By choosing a title such as The Dead-Beat, Owen immediately sets the scene for colloquial phrases such as ’I’ll do ‘em in’ l.7, ‘Blighty’ l.10, and ‘not half’ l.18 This is Owen’s way of letting us hear the real voice of the ordinary soldier. The ‘stiffs’ and the ‘Hun’ l.15 are slang terms for the dead and the enemy, the two things which might have been expected to ‘craze’ the exhausted soldier. The medical officer is familiarly referred to as ‘the Doc’ l.19. Siegfried Sassoon had encouraged him to use this technique. 


The words Owen chooses are blunt and realistic. The verbs which Owen clusters together in the opening lines to show the man’s breakdown are plain and simple: ‘dropped’ l.1, ‘Lay’ l.2, ‘kick’ l.3, ‘blinked’ l.4, ‘stared’ l.6, ‘whined’ l.7. The adverbs used to qualify these simple verbs are evocative of the man’s ‘dead-beat’ state. He does things ‘sullenly’, as opposed to just ‘wearily’ l.1. 


Owen’s use of the alliterative ‘b’ helps to tie the poem together. The man ‘blinked .. blearily’ l.4 at the revolver meant to threaten him to his feet and his ‘blasted’ environment. ‘Blighty’, which the ‘low voice’ said was the cause of his trouble, is associated with images of ‘Bold’ uncles l.11 and ‘brave’ young wives l.12. These are strong words about the Home front compared with the weak blinking and bleary eyes of the dead-beat man. In the penultimate line Owen uses alliteration to dreadful effect with the ‘well-whiskied’ laugh to highlight the drunken heartlessness of the doctor.


  • The ‘blasted trench’ l.6 is an ambiguous term which suggests the state of the trench which has been ‘blasted’ by ammunition but also a colloquial term condemning it as a place of horror.
  • Owen creates real tension through the use of the contrasting ‘whined’ and ‘kick’, the length and harshness of which convey the man’s feelings and the attitudes of his comrades. Similarly, the ‘pluck’ of l.9, that the man has lost, is sharp and positive compared with the ‘dreaming’ of line ten
  • ‘Crazed’ l.15, ‘strafe’ l.17, ‘malingering’ and ‘winked’ l.18 all have onomatopoeic qualities in as much as their sound in some way or another reflects their meaning. The ‘z’ sound in craze suggests a jagged brokenness, the German word ‘strafe’ means punishment and came into English to describe the action of artillery bombing or rifle fire. The long lingering syllables of ‘malingering’ gives a sense of the exaggerated symptoms of one who is pretending to be ill. The stretcher-bearers’ wink is cynical, like the sign that winked at the departing troops in The Send Off.


Because of the ambiguity surrounding the dead-beat, about his actual problems and his eventual fate, although the initial lines evoke our pity, the tone becomes more dispassionate with the introduction of the cynical attitudes of others.

Investigating language and tone in The Dead Beat

  • The ambiguity of the title The Dead-Beat adds to its impact as an anti-war poem. Divide a sheet of paper in half lengthways.
    • On one side note the words and phrases which back up the view that the man was a ‘no good’.
    • On the other side do the same to support the view that he was ‘dead-beat’ as a result of the war.

Structure of The Dead-Beat

Owen packs the incident of the dead-beat man into four stanzas of irregular length which move us from the moment in stanza 1 when the man ‘dropped’ l.1, through the reflection of the low-voiced man who knew of personal pressures on his comrade to the action of the stretcher-bearers who removed him from the trench. The final stanza takes us to the next day when the doctor reports that the man is dead


There are several voices to be heard in The Dead-Beat. Owen uses speech marks to indicate the words which are ‘whined’ l.7 ‘said’ l.9, even ‘winked’ l.14 and ‘laughed’ l.18. We hear the narrator’s voice in the phrase ‘my revolver’ in line four. This indicates that Owen shares in guilt by association with the callousness with the men, the stretcher-bearers and the doctor. His voice is heard again in line sixteen relating the action taken and what else was said about the man. The phrase ‘A low voice’ l.9 indicates that its owner was someone who knew the man’s home life and so speaks in a way that expresses understanding and pity for the man. He has the longest speech, which sits at the heart of the poem. The rough voices of the stretcher-bearers, who believe the man to be a malingerer, and the doctor, who sees him as scum and is glad that he is dead, end the poem.


Owen incorporates the title The Dead-Beat into the poem by rhyming ‘beat’ with the words ‘meat’ and ‘feet’ at the end of the second and third lines. 


The first four lines of the first stanza have a regular abba rhyme-scheme. However the second quatrain, although it begins in a regular way (cdd) is broken by a caesura which splits the final line in two. Owen takes the second half of the line and makes it the second half of the first line of the second stanza. By doing so he jolts us from one character to another, from Owen and the man to the comrade who knows about his problems at home. This line, rather than rhyming with what has gone before in stanza one, sets up the new rhyme scheme for stanza two: 

  • ‘said’ prepares us for those who ‘aren’t dead’
  • ‘didn’t know a war was on’ l.5 prepares us for ‘all his pluck’s gone’ l. 9.
  • The ‘fun’ the young wife has in her husband’s absence and which may be the cause of his breakdown rhymes with the ‘Hun’ who, despite being the enemy, isn’t the problem. Owen is making a powerful statement about women and the home front.

Owen knits the poem together in an uneasy way:

  • The pararhyme of ‘strafe’ and ‘laugh’ makes an uncomfortable link between the bombardment which the man had suffered at the hands of the enemy and the ridicule his death receives from the doctor whose job is to care
  • The final line links back to l.16. It highlights the Doctor’s strictly utilitarian approach that is pleased to get ‘out of the way’ someone who was no use to the war effort, leaving the reader shocked and horrified. 


Most lines of The Dead-Beat have 10 syllables creating a regular pentameter. There are instances when Owen introduces an additional syllable which either unsettles the balance to reflect the disturbing incident he has witnessed or can be read in such a way as to maintain the line length. For instance in line thirteen if every one of the five syllables in the word ‘materially’ is given equal weight the line runs into eleven syllables. However it can be slurred to fit. However, line 18 defiantly breaks the established rhythm, with its questioning caesura, the double trochee of ‘Stretcher-bearers’ and the final double stress of ‘Not half!’ which adds an extra beat to the line.

The iambic stress of some lines is not regular, which serves to add to the unsettling feeling of this poem. The trochee ‘Dreaming’ l.10, and spondees ‘Bold unc[les]’ l.12 and ‘Unwounded’ l.16 force the stress to the front of the line. 

The trochaic stress on the word ‘unwounded’ is significant because the man dies the next day for no perceivable reason. Owen needs us to have that at the front of our minds as it creates an air of mystery. Why does the man die when he appears to be uninjured in body if not in mind?

Investigating structure and versification in The Dead Beat

  • Owen’s versification in the poem creates an uneasy response when read aloud – try doing so to a friend
    • Discuss the irregular lines. Why does Owen want us to take note of them in particular?
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