How might one compare and contrast "Futility" by Wilfred Owen with "Suicide in the Trenches" by Sigfried Sassoon?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” and Wilfred Owen’s “Futility” are both poems that emphasize death in war – in particular, death in World War I. Sassoon’s poem emphasizes death by suicide, whereas the cause of death in Owen’s poem, although not specified, seems to have resulted from military conflict.

Sassoon’s poem opens by emphasizing the speaker’s personal familiarity with the soldier who has died. His youth and innocence are stressed (he was a “simple soldier boy” [1]), who could sleep without difficulty and who actually imitated the beauties of nature: he

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, 
And whistled early with the lark. (3-4)

The tone of the first stanza, then, suggests harmony in several senses: peace with oneself, peace with one’s surroundings, and literal harmony with the natural world.

The tone and mood change significantly, however, in the second stanza. Many details emphasized in the first stanza are now replaced by very different details: the youth is no longer full of joy; instead he is “glum” (5). The earlier reference to the lark (associated with springtime or summer) is now replaced by an emphasis on winter and on “lice” far less appealing creatures than larks [6]). Most shocking of all, however, is the abrupt reference to the young soldier’s suicide: “He put a bullet through his brain” (7). Although the speaker notes of the youth that “No one spoke of him again” (8), obviously this very poem is a powerful effort to make sure that he is not completely forgotten.

The final stanza upbraids those who cheer soldiers on parade but who know nothing of the real conditions of their lives. The tone of this stanza is bitter and sardonic.

Owen’s poem titled “Futility” both resembles and differs from Sassoon’s lyric. Both poems emphasize the death of a particular soldier, but Sassoon stresses death by suicide whereas Owen’s poem seems to imply death in combat. In Owen’s poem the soldier is dead from the moment the poem opens, whereas the death in Sassoon’s poem is not made clear until the second stanza. Owen’s poem is apparently addressed to one of the dead soldier’s comrades, whereas Sassoon’s work is ultimately an angry rebuke to complacent civilians. Sassoon’s poem stresses the soldier’s initial ability to sleep; Owen’s poem highlights the soldier’s past habit of awakening with the rising sun. The second stanza of Owen’s poem is meditative; only a slight touch of anger or disdain is suggested by the word “fatuous” in line 13.  In contrast, the ending of Sassoon’s poem is openly bitter and obviously anti-war. The tone of Owen’s poem is finally more subdued that the tone of Sassoon’s. Owen’s poem is more a meditation on death itself than on the specific death of a particular soldier, whereas Sassoon’s poem amounts to a strong and open indictment of war. Owen’s poem stresses what the dead soldier shares with the rest of humanity (their common mortality); Sassoon’s poem stresses how the soldier differs from the “smug-faced crowds” (9) of civilians who have no idea of the grim realities of soldier’s lives and deaths. Owen’s speaker concludes by asking open-ended questions; Sassoon’s poem concludes by expressing contempt for many of the poem’s very readers.