I. Context & Subject Matter in Futility #
A recently deceased soldier is moved out into the sun in a desperate vain hope that the warmth of the sun will revive him. The futility of this act depicts the desperation of his comrades turning from grief to despairing rage.
The two stanzas represent the different stages of grief: the first is denial of the death (the soldier is hopeful that the sun will stir life in his dead comrade), and the second stanza shows realisation, despair and anger (the soldier then questions the point of life and existence).
In contrast to other Owen poems this poem deals with the death of an individual soldier - someone they knew. Because of this we get to know him and his death becomes real to us despite his anonymity.
Owen brings his personal pain for losing one of his friends to a level of universal tragedy.
Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
*Think how it wakes the seeds, -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved, - still warm, - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?*
Watch a Youtube presentations here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWT61etJnxY
II. Sound Effects in Futility #
*Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice. *
A subdued, pensive and reflective mood prevails. The rhyme scheme is half rhyme at best: sun - sown, sown – snow, seeds – sides, star – stir.
The tone modulates beginning with a compassionate gentle concern and ending up with perplexed, frustrated rage about not only an individual soldier but a more universal question of the purpose of the universe.
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns of Futility #
The pointlessness of all human endeavour.
After seeing the waste of one anonymous soldier, the poet asks some questions; the most poignant one that has haunted mankind since the dawn of recorded time-WHY? Moving from the death of one in the prime of youth, we are made to contemplate the larger universal question of why did the powerful sun create life in the first place.
The wanton waste of potential in the unsown fields and the needless inexplicable death of young men is decried here.
“We have learnt nothing and forgotten a great deal. Surely, when history weighs our place in Afghanistan, it will come to the same conclusion as it did with Vietnam: that we squandered young men’s lives in a futile, unwinnable fight with an enemy who posed no threat to us”. Mike Carlton
Everyone dies in war- especially the survivors.
IV. TECHNIQUE in Futility #
*Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc *
The poet uses a circular argument; the sun, the source of all life stimulates life by waking us up in the morning and by germinating seeds should be able to resuscitate their dead comrade. After demonstrating the mysterious and magical powers of the sun, the poet ends in utter frustration by decrying the “fatuous” sunbeams – therefore all life – as pointless if all we do is use our energies to kill others.
The dominant image is the life-giving sun, the source of all life. All primitive societies appreciated how dependent we are on the sun for life and sustenance. The Aztecs would sacrifice a young male and female each day just to ensure that the sun would rise the next day.
This is complemented by the second underlying image of the cycle of all life, seeds (birth) maturity, procreation (harvest) and death. The clue that something is wrong comes with “whispering of fields unsown”. Something has broken the cycle of nature just as this soldier’s “seed” will not be sown.
Owen also uses the concept of “seed of his loins” for procreation in Parable of the Old Men and The Young
The image of the “whispering fields unsown” has a double possibility, literally it refers to the loss of productivity due to the devastation of war, while figuratively it could also refer to the loss of the procreative powers of the fallen men who will never sow the “seed of their loins”.
More examples of denial is use of qualified language disbelief: “might",“once”, “will know”
V. LANGUAGE: #
*Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases. **
The prevailing tone is one of immediate grief and confusion leading to frustration. It is inexplicable that the sun, which stimulates life cannot now revive this fellow soldier. The querulous attitude is demonstrated by the number of question marks in the last four lines of the poem.
*Too hard to stir?* Was it for this the clay grew tall? O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth’s sleep at all?*
Owen’s choice of diction indicates his purpose, the contrast of soft sensitive words contrasted with hard negative connotations.
Soft, sensitive, tender Hard negative, cynical Gently its touch Clays of a cold star Whispering Clay grew tall Rouse Fatuous sunbeams Kind old sun Break earth’s sleep at all? Full-nerved,- still warm Snow
The tender language used to describe his reactions to the sun; which contrasts to the violent language used in some of the other poems. The choice of “clay” reminds us that “from clay we came and dust we return”. The “cold star” is likely a reference to earth before if became inhabited. The “clays of a cold star". The idea is expressed in the bible that man is made out of clay. “Thou hast made me of clay and wilt thou bring me unto dust again”
The choice of “fatuous” for meaningless, or pointlessness reinforces the angry frustration of the persona.
The word “whispering” has the connotation of inner, private anxiety or dread.
The final line raises the age old existential question “why are we here?”
VI. Evaluation: Futility #
When compared to other poems eulogising the death of a soldier, this poem rings true; it shows an insight into this event and evokes genuine emotions of empathy and waste.
This is perhaps Owen’s most profound poem in asking the age-old question of the purpose of life.