Presentation of Hopelessness of War in Futility and other Owen poems.

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Sophie Miller        English Literature        Lynne Heritage

“Consider the ways in which the sadness and hopelessness of war is presented here. How does Owen convey this in different ways in other poems in the selection?”

        Futility is a two stanza poem possessing many of the characteristics of an elegy – it is both mournful and plaintive, expressing feeling of regret, as well as a deep consideration for the past. The poem describes the first morning after the death of a soldier. The poet laments the man, whom he clearly knew personally – giving details of his life in the first stanza: “At home, whispering of fields unsown”. The second stanza is filled with grief; it shows the poet’s potent anger over the death of his friend, as well as the regression into naïveté it causes within him. He becomes child like and in denial, failing to see why the soldier – “Full-nerved, - still warm” cannot be awoken by the sun. Finally, Owen seems to collapse into a state of disbelief, questioning the necessity of life itself. “– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?”

        Owen’s aim in this poem is to convey the futility of the young soldier’s death – the fact that he has seemingly died for nothing. The semantic field of cultivation and farming hints at the idea that before going to war, the man was a farmer or farm hand: “fields unsown”, “wakes the seeds” and “clays”. This impression of a previous vocation provides a strong contrast with the man’s role in the setting of war. Rather than being an essential cog in the workings of a prosperous farm, he is one of many millions of young men sent to die in an ineffectual war. This idea of the ineffectuality of war is also evident in Exposure, where Owen’s men are sent on a mission in the snow with very little idea of what it is they are to achieve as well as scarce communication from their superiors, and subsequently a lack of reason and understanding behind the carrying out of their duties. The helpless and anxious nature of “We only know war lasts” and “Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, / But nothing happens.” and the recurrent repetition of the phrase “But nothing happens” all serve to show this.

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Almost all of the words or phrases with which the lines end show sibilant qualities: “sun”, “once”, “unsown”, “snow”, “seeds”, “star”, “sides”, “stir”, “sunbeams” and “sleep”. These help to add a passionate quality to the poem, as well as encouraging the reader to recognise its speech-like qualities. For these reasons, the poem seems less like poetry for the purposes of art, and more like a strongly felt political speech containing arguments against the improvidence of war – something one might expect to hear at an anti war rally, or in Parliament. This effect is intensified by the grammar of the ...

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