Futility - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Futility

Someone gives an order for a soldier to be moved into the sun. The hope is that, despite the snow, the warmth of the sun might resuscitate him. The person speaking knows that the soldier was previously an agricultural worker who was always attuned to sunshine, and he is hopeful, at first, that life may be restored. Once the optimism dies away, the person considering the corpse reflects on the futility of life from its first creation until now. We assume that the speaker, the voice of the poem, is Owen.

Investigating Futility

  • Both Futility and Exposure were based on Owen’s experience with his platoon on the Western Front in January 1917, though Owen tells a very different story in the one poem from the other. In comparing the narrative arcs of each poem, what do you notice is similar and what is different
    • Compare Owen’s own role in each poem.

Commentary on Futility


One of only five poems by Owen to be published in his lifetime, Futility was first published in an anti-war periodical called The Nation in 1918. It was written earlier that year at Ripon, when Owen was training to return to the Front. 

WWI casualtiesIn the January of 1917 Owen was at the Front in France. He describes being in ‘a frozen desert’. One man died from exposure, who is probably the soldier described in Futility. The wider experience of that time is the subject of Owen’s poem Exposure.


In his first draft of Futility Owen had used the title ‘Frustration’. The poem appeared together with Hospital Barge and Miners. Owen intended to publish his poems and so attempted to categorise them. He placed Futility under the heading of ‘Grief’. 

The title ‘Futility’ means pointlessness. The second stanza expresses the view that the whole of creation has been a waste if the desolation of the battlefields is all it has led to. Owen’s choice of title may have been influenced by Tennyson’s In Memoriam, expressing his grief on the death of a friend:

O life as futile, then, as frail


The poem has fourteen lines but otherwise does not obey the expectations of the sonnet form, though it expresses tenderness. It can better be described as an elegy. Owen had considered calling his book of poetry ‘English Elegies.’ 

Elegies are traditionally lengthy poems remembering the famous dead, their great deeds and offering some sort of consolation. Here, Owen subverts the form to create an anti-war poem. Loving care is enmeshed in the pathos of death, and results in anger that has no resolution. Instead of heroic actions we have a half-sown field and a wasted life. There is no consolation. 

Investigating the commentary on Futility

  • In a first draft Owen used the title ‘Frustration’ then later changed it to ‘Futility’. Explore the connotations of both words.
    • Look for evidence of both feelings in the poem.
    • Do you think Owen’s final choice was right? Write a couple of sentences to support your view using quotations from the poem.
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