The Dead-Beat - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in The Dead-Beat

Owen relies heavily on speech and straightforward description in The Dead-Beat so the two similes which cluster in the second line stand out.


‘Lay stupid like a cod’ compares the man to a fish that is caught and, out of its natural element, is useless. Although he is not yet dead, he lies like a cod on a fishmonger’s slab, with his eyes glazed and staring. Describing the man as being ‘heavy like meat’ l.2 reminds us of ‘those who die as cattle’ in Anthem for Doomed Youth. Although still alive, Owen describes the man as being ‘heavy like meat’, an image of butchery and the slaughter-house. The similes are startling and brutal.


Blighty: the soldiers’ slang for England is a symbol in The Dead-Beat for all that is wrong with the Home front. Though it should symbolise hope and home, ironically, for this man it is the very thing which has ‘crazed’ him. His dreams are in fact nightmares of those who are safe at home, the so-called ‘valiant’, ‘brave’ and ‘bold’, compared to whom he has lost his ‘pluck’ (courage). 

The ‘uncles’ symbolise the politicians and priests who preach ‘smiling ministerially’ l.11. Owen here cleverly uses the word ‘minister’ as an adverb to describe their complacent smiles, playing on the word which, in its best sense, means to offer help but here refers to ‘ministers’ of state and religion who preach propaganda.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in The Dead Beat

  • The only images Owen uses in The Dead-Beat are the two de-humanising similes at the start of the poem. Compare this with the opening simile in Anthem for Doomed Youth.
    • In your opinion which is the worse: ‘die as cattle’ or ‘heavy like meat’?

Themes in The Dead-Beat

The pity of war

Owen uses this poem to show us the pity of war, even in the fact that only the ‘low voice’ shows any compassion to the dead-beat man, despite the presence of other ‘caring professions:

His comradeship shows the strong bonds between men in the trenches. This was one of the ‘untold truths’ (see Strange Meeting) in which Owen passionately believed and which he wished to communicate through his poetry. Owen is inviting the reader to take the side of the dead-beat.

The horror of war

Owen’s other theme is the horror of war. The officer threatening the man with his revolver, the kicks the other men give him and the ‘blasted trench’ all show what conditions were like on the front line. Owen communicates the horrors of the home front in the insensitivity of the bold uncles and the unfaithful wife. The cynicism of the stretcher-bearers and man’s inhumanity to man as expressed in the Doc’s ‘well -whiskied laugh’ all contribute to the themes of darkness and death.

Investigating themes in The Dead-Beat

  • This is a very dark poem in which we can identify many of the major themes of Owen’s later poems. Decide which theme is dominant, collecting quotations from The Dead-Beat to back up your conclusion.
    • Using your evidence write a paragraph on the effectiveness of The Dead-Beat as an anti-war poem.
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