Futility - Language, tone and structure

Language in Futility

Plain language

The plain language of the poem adds to the poignancy of the subject matter: the death of a soldier and the theme of futility. Although it is not explicit, there is something about Owen’s diction that suggests that the dead soldier may be a young boy. Perhaps it is the way the command to move him is juxtaposed with the gentle touch of the sun. We imagine the order being given in that way too. Maybe it is the idea of him growing tall, as if this had only recently happened, that he was just grown up, that suggests he is not much more than a boy.

Positive diction

The words of the first stanza are positive, some even upbeat, full of hope: 

  • The ‘sun’ in line one is warm and life giving, waking the man to a new day. It is personified as ‘kind’ and, by implication, wise l.6-7
  • The adverb ‘gently’ of line two qualifies the ‘touch’ which ‘at home’ wakes him ‘whispering’ of ‘half sown fields’ and reinforcing the gentle kindness already established.
  • Owen’s use of ‘always’ in line four creates a comfortable sense of continuity and safety ‘even’ he tells us ‘in France’.
  • Hope is raised by the use of the word ‘rouse’ in line six. Owen is hoping the sun will be able to wake him. The use of the word ‘rouse’ is interesting because The Rouse is a bugle call used in the war and still to be heard at Remembrance Day ceremonies. On the Western front it would follow the call for Reveille which was the wake-up call. The Rouse was then used to get the men out of bed.
More on The Rouse and Remembrance...The Rouse is a bugle call commonly played following The Last Post at military services. It is often mistakenly referred to as ‘reveille’, a word from the French meaning ‘to awaken’. The Rouse was traditionally played after the Reveille bugle call.

Negative diction

In stanza two the diction changes after the initial line to be far more negative:

  • Moving from the idea of seeds in the earth, Owen uses the term ‘clays’ in line 8, a soil that is heavy, lumpen and hard to cultivate, as well as reminiscent of the sticky mud that characterised so many of the WWI battlefields
  • He refers to the earth in its earliest state of creation (according to the traditional biblical account in Genesis 1:9-10) as land that has not yet felt the light of the sun (Genesis 1:16) and is therefore ‘cold’
  • Referring to the world as a ‘star’, rather than as the planet it is, also adds to the feeling of distance and cool remoteness, of the lack of life. This is compounded by the description of the man’s limbs being in death ‘too hard to stir’ l.11 (a pararhyme of star)
  • Owen repeats ‘clay’ in line 12, this time in its biblical sense that God made man out of clay:
    Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

    Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8).
    yet all this creative activity is framed within a rhetorical question which highlights the pointlessness of the soldier’s fate
  • Owen’s final angry barb condemns the sun itself as ‘fatuous’ l.13, a word not dissimilar to the ‘futility’ of the poem’s title, as both mean useless / pointless. Each term has a soft ‘f’ followed by a hard ‘t’, allowing Owen’s anger to be almost spat out.

Sense of place 

Owen’s language in stanza one creates a strong sense of place in a few simple words. In the opening line we are immediately involved in the placing of the man’s body. He is moved ‘into the sun’ l.1, a place of life and light. At ‘home’ l.3 it woke him. Owen may be suggesting that he was a plough-man or plough-boy since the sun whispered of half-sown fields’ l.3, waking him and reminding that there was a job to be completed. The contrast with home is made by the phrase ‘even in France’ l.4. Owen is making a subtle comment about the difference between the rural England of the soldier’s home and the northern France (the Western front), where he really would rather not be.


Hopeful and optimistic

The opening of this poem is hopeful, optimistic even. This positive mood carries through to the last lines of the first stanza:

If anything can rouse him
The kind old sun will know

This hope spills over into the first line of the second stanza: ‘think how it wakes the seeds-’; but the dash brings with it a change of tone. 

Anger and despair

The sun which brings warmth and the promise of new life is now perceived as insufficient and helpless in the face of the destruction of humanity facing the speaker. Owen asks three angry rhetorical questions which also serve to emphasise the significance of individual human life. The young man’s body had been ‘tall’, ‘full-nerved’ and ‘warm’, a growth and development which had been costly but worth it (‘dear-achieved’ l.10). Yet this precious life has been wasted, not even in battle but by being left with insufficient protection from the cold. By the end of the poem, Owen’s tone reflects the title and the reader can only agree. 

Investigating language and tone in Futility

  • The tone of a poem is best tested by reading it aloud and listening to how expression helps with understanding. Read the poem out loud and emphasise the ‘f’ sound of ‘futility’ and ‘fatuous’. Put as much scorn in to your voice as you can to reflect Owen’s feelings about the death.
    • Now read the poem concentrating on the soft tone of the first stanza. Notice how you have to change your mood and expression between reading the first line of the second stanza and the second line.

Structure and versification in Futility

The two-stanza structure of Futility reflects the poem's change in tone, from hope and confidence to despair. The poem is written in a mixture of iambic and trochaic tetrameter. The first and last lines of each stanza are trimeters, effectively opening and closing the scene. In lines one and eight Owen also opens with short imperative verbs, aimed first at his men and then at the reader, which have the effect of engaging us with the action.

The extra syllable of ‘whispering’ in line three, coupled with the sibilance of ‘fields unsown’ conveys the sense of sunlight and breeze rippling over open spaces, just as the ploughboy would have encountered at the start of a working day.



Owen uses the pararhymes to unite the poem but at the same time to create an unsettled feeling. Following an ab ab ccc rhyme-scheme, in the second stanza Owen links ‘seeds’ with ‘sides’, following through the metaphor of life growing from the nurture of creation. The negative coldness of ‘star’ prepares the reader for limbs that no longer ‘stir’, having been rendered inert. That the creation of life has taken effort (‘dear-achieved’) is emphasised by the linking of ‘tall’ and ‘toil’.

Both stanzas end with a true rhyme ‘snow/know’, ‘tall/all’ which pull the stanzas to a close with long vowel sounds. In particular the lingering drawn out ‘all’ leaves us to ponder the two final questions.


In Futility Owen often stresses the opening syllable of a line, which gives a positive energy to the lines, for example, ‘Move’ l.1, ‘Gently’ l.2, ‘Always’ l.4, ‘Think’ l.8. Only in line 12 does this emphasis become a strongly negative question: ‘Was it..’.

Sometimes this becomes a double stress (spondee) to give weight to particular phrases. In l.9 we slow down over ‘Woke, once’ and in l.11 Owen puts three spondees in a row to make the reader think and question: ‘full-nerved, --still warm, --too hard’. 

Investigating structure and versification in Futility

  • The regular stanza pattern of the poem contrasts with the irregular pattern of its rhymes and rhythms. Print off a copy of the poem and divide each line into feet to decide on the metre Owen is using
    • Annotate them with hard/soft stresses to identify either trochaic or iambic feet and see if you can spot any patterns that emerge
    • Try to say how the variance in stress, metre and rhythm affects the emotion of the poem
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