Sassoon's "The Death Bed," like many of his poems written during his service in World War Two, is an account of an unnamed young soldier who has been mortally wounded, presumably on the Western Front, where Sassoon and his contemporary, Wilfred Owen, served and died. The poem begins by describing the young, semi-conscious soldier on his hospital bed, slipping in and out of consciousness, alternating between a partial awareness of his surroundings, evidenced by the first line of stanza two, "Someone was holding water to his mouth." The soldier has been seriously wounded, and the opioids, most likely morphine or heroin, which the doctors have given him, are only partly effective in palliating the "throb and ache that was his wound."
Likely as a result of both the injuries he has sustained, and what seems to be a heavy dose of opioids, the soldier's reaction to drinking the water carries him into a dream or hallucination, possibly a mix, or green water in a skylit alley, on which his boat rests. This is likely an allusion to a childhood memory, and from the description of the boat and water underneath an alley, it seems probably that he lived somewhere where there were canals. In line five of the second stanza, Sassoon references water sliding over a "weir," which is a small dam, and this reinforces the notion that the soldier is imagining his home or childhood. In his mind, he hears birds and sees flowers, and dips his oars into the water, rowing himself further into oblivion, as his body and mind become untethered to the physical world around him.
The next stanza, number three, takes us out of the soldier's mind and point of view and places us inside the hospital near the soldiers bed. A gust of wind ripples through the hospital ward, and the reader learns that the soldier is blind, presumably as a result of his wounds. He cannot see the stars outside, through his "drowning eyes." The soldier hears rain outside and imagines the soaked woods and "drooping roses," perhaps another reference to life wilting. Sassoon describes how the deluge from a storm washes the woods and thunder away, as well as the soldier's life, as if this were all a part of natural phenomenon, a life storm of sorts.
In the fifth stanza, the soldier begins to stir, and shifts his body, which rouses the pain from his wound, that grips him like a “growling beast,” tearing into his dreams with “claws and fangs.” As quickly and intensely as the searing pain comes, it dissipates, once someone comes to sit beside him, but the pain has taken a physical and mental toll, weakening the soldier and leaving him perilously close to death.
In the next stanza, Sassoon uses apostrophe, or direct address, asking the reader to “Lend lamps and gather round his bed.” The soldier has begun to die, and Sassoon has invited his readers to the vigil. He writes, “Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him.” The soldier, Sassoon writes, was young and hated war, so why, he asks, should he die when the “cruel, old” war hawks who had made the case for war with careless disregard to loss of life, are safe at home? Unfortunately, the personified figure of death remains unmoved by this plea, and says, “I choose him,” meaning the soldier. So he takes the soldier’s life, leaving silence in the room, even as the guns on the front continue their barrage, presumably killing more young men like this one.