What are some of the themes and techniques of Wilfred Owen's poem titled "Futility"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Wilfred Owen’s poem titled “Futility” is a work worth examining in some detail in order to understand how its techniques contribute to its themes and meanings. Here are some noteworthy aspects of the poem:

  • Its title, “Futility,” ultimately comes from a Latin word meaning easily broken or worthless (see www.dictionary.com).  This title, then, is especially appropriate to this poem. The body of the young soldier the poem describes has indeed been easily broken by war, but that is not necessarily to say that his life was worthless. Indeed, the very existence of the poem implies just the opposite. Why write a poem about a thing of no value?
  • The word “futile” can also suggest something that is trifling, frivolous, or unimportant. From one perspective, the poem suggests that human life may indeed be futile in this sense, but the whole purpose of the poem seems to be to protest, implicitly, against such a view. The speaker, after all, never finally proclaims such a view. He merely, in the close of the poem, raises it as a possibility.
  • The speaker of the poem addresses us as if we were one of the soldiers standing near the fresh corpse of the young soldier. Owen thus immediately involves us in the poem, just as the abrupt opening of the poem catches us off guard and intrigues us. Who is the person referred to by “him”? Why should he be moved into the sun? Why can he not move himself into the sun? Not until we reach the reference to “France” in line 4 can we even be entirely sure that this is a war poem.
  • The speaker’s reference, in line 2, to the sun’s gentleness implies his own. Only a compassionate person could himself speak so gently.
  • Line 3 implies the speaker’s nostalgia for “home” and also suggests the dead man’s former occupation: he was apparently a farmer or farm-worker of some kind. Ironically, the reference to “fields half-sown” is relevant to the young man’s own life, prematurely cut short. As a farmer, he was associated with growth and vitality; as a soldier he is now associated with death. As a farmer, he tended the earth; now, as a corpse, he will soon be part of the earth.
  • The speaker of the poem manages again, in line 5, to create a sense that “we are there,” when he refers to “this morning and this snow” (emphasis added). We are not simply being told about a past event; we are, in a sense, being made to re-live that event, to experience it for ourselves.
  • Once again, in lines 6-7, the speaker, while describing something else, implicitly characterizes himself:

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

The reference to the sun as “kindly” also characterizes the speaker.

  • The reference, in line 8, to the sun waking the seeds looks back to the earlier reference, in line 3, to “fields half-sown,” thus contributing to the unity of the poem.
  • The sentence structure of lines 10-11 are especially effective, as the crucial question is postponed until the very end of line 11.
  • The fact that the poem now even asks questions helps involve the reader, once again, even more deeply in the work. Indeed, the whole second half of the second stanza is given over to insistent and increasingly more general, more probing questions, so that by the very end of the work we have gone from the futility of trying to revive a single corpse to the possible futility of all earthly existence, and certainly of all human life.

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