Compare And Contrast Wilfred Owen's 'futility' And Thom Gunn's 'the Reassurance'

2044 words - 9 pages

Gunn's 'The Reassurance' and Owen's 'Futility' are thematically apt for comparison as they both focus on death. They will be interesting to compare regarding the causes of death- AIDS and war- being natural or man-made.Structurally, the poems are similar on the page, both being split up into stanzas. Their different uses of rhyming techniques are also useful areas for comparison and contrast, one poet choosing half instead of full-rhyme and the changing the position of the rhymes in each stanza. The reasons for this become evident when analysing the poems in-depth.'The Reassurance' is about the death of someone the narrator knew (from AIDS). It describes this person as 'kind' to move away from the stereotypical view of AIDS sufferers being unclean or taboo. This person's ghost has come back in a dream to reassure the narrator, although the narrator admits that his mind constructed the dream to protect him.Owen's 'Futility' is about a soldier who has died. He has been laid in the sun to try and revive him but all attempts to save him are futile. The narrator considers the point of life on Earth if it is so fragile and seemingly pointless.Not surprisingly, and implied by its title, 'Futility' has a tone of helplessness and a resulting resentment and confusion. We can infer this tone of resentment by Owen's use of phrases such as:'-Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toilTo break earth's sleep at all?' (Owen, 'Futility')Here, Owen is considering, if trying to live is so futile, why the sun created life on earth at all. Does life have any purpose or meaning other then eventual death?The tone of Gunn's 'The Reassurance' is one of remembrance and understanding of both the situation and his own mind's protection. We can infer the tone of Gunn's poem from statements within it such as:'And, yes, how like my mindTo make itself secure.'Here, he is showing understanding of the working of his mind and acceptance of the person's death.Wilfred Owen was a soldier in WW1, which explains the topic of his poem and, considering the death and 'futility' of trying to survive that he experienced first-hand, the tone of helplessness and resentment present in 'Futility'.Gunn based a great deal of his poetry on his experiences, although not personal, with AIDS. Therefore, even though it doesn't state how the person in the poem died, 'fleshed out again' implies the effects of AIDS having been reversed in his dream.It is important to note when comparing 'Futility' and 'The Reassurance' that one cause of death is man-made (war) and the other is a result of a disease (AIDS).Owen handles the theme of death by looking at the bigger picture of war and life itself. We can infer from the poem that he realises that although this dead soldier's life should be important, both the mortality rate of those at war and when considering all those who die around the world every day, it is not.Owen's poem is a questioning one; he knows that he cannot know the answers himself so he asks the loaded questions about the point of life for the readers to consider themselves. He considers the permanence of death-how if the sun created and sustains all life on earth, can it fail to revive one soldier who is still warm with recent life?Gunn, on the other hand, focuses on the ravages of disease leading to death and then our reaction to death on somewhat of a universal level. Gunn says regarding his mind creating closure to protect itself:'What I'm saying there is that we control the contents of our dreams' (Thom Gunn)The one-on-one description of the situation is well-designed to create emotional memories about anyone they also might have lost in their lives. This means that everyone who reads this will be effected in a different way and have memories of similar experiences, such as a dream soon after the death of a close friend/relation.'Futility' by Owen is full of turns, contrasting images and changing tone. To start, the first three lines sound full of hope, a stark contrast to the poem's title, and we are led to believe the soldier is not dead. Here, the sun is an image of healing. We are introduced to the idea that this soldier is a young man by the term, 'fields unsown'. This refers to what has yet had a chance to do, away from the war. However, words such as 'whispering' and the feeling of calm only reinforce the hope in this poem.The first change of tone occurs from the fourth line. The contrast between the warmth of the sun in the previous lines with the reality of the cold winter is somewhat demoralising. When we add this feeling to the presence of words such as 'always' and 'even', the tone becomes lower still as we realise he has been fighting for a long time and up until now he has managed to survive. Somehow the reference to the 'kind old sun' no longer seems as full of hope.The power of the sun, described as waking the 'cold star' can be compared to its inability to wake this young soldier, now the 'cold star'. We are then led to consider the life of this boy. The idea of his life being 'dear achieved' makes us consider, although he is young, how long it has taken to create the person he is. We are made to think, in a war that makes one death seem inadequate, how important and amazing his life really was. So arises the bitterness and helplessness of the last few lines. The sun can create a whole world from nothing but cannot revive one boy that is 'still warm' from life, having just died.The end of 'Futility' is one of questions that are seemingly unanswerable. We are made to consider the purpose of life if it is to end in pointless deaths like these. The 'clay grew tall' refers to the creation of man and questions the reason for the sun bringing life to the Earth.Lastly, we are met with a feeling of lost hope and resentment. There is a dramatic change of image for the sun - warm and hopeful at the beginning- now being utterly useless and even spiteful.When looking at the form of this poem on the page, it is split into two stanzas, each seven lines long. The biggest change in tone from hope to resentment happens between the two stanzas and their separation makes this obvious.The lines of 'Futility' all have an even amount of syllables, which give the poem a strong rhythm. Notably, both the first and last line of each stanza has six syllables which bookend the poem and separates the conflicting feelings within it.There are a few very interesting points to note about this poem structurally. Firstly, the rhyming scheme is one that stands out because Owen has chosen visually similar but only half-rhyming words such as 'sun' and 'sown', 'once' and 'France' This word usage creates the same rhythm that is attained by full rhyme but also conceals another purpose made clear at the end of the poem. Just as the reality of life does not match the brilliance of its creation, so the words don't quite match each other. The off-kilter of the rhyming echoes the unbalance of life and creation.The syntax is carefully arranged so that the image of the sun is used encircle the rest of the lines. This emphasises its power and seeming control over the creation and sustaining of life.The layout of Gunn's 'The Reassurance' is of three stanzas, which separate the different aspects of the poem in a similar way to Owen's poem.The first stanza leads us to believe that the narrator has been visited by his dead acquaintance in a dream, and who passes on the message that he is O.K. to reassure him. Interestingly, there are two striking features about this first stanza. Firstly, the person who has died is not named which seems a little impersonal. We can compare this to Owen's soldier boy in 'Futility' who also has no name. This links the poems nicely because both focus on one person who has died as a result of something that kills millions of people. It makes us feel that they are two faces within a huge crowd, which has stripped them of their identity. Secondly, Gunn uses the word 'we' instead of, perhaps, 'my friends and I'. This is effective in a similar way to not naming the victim in his poem because, like those who die from AIDS, there are so many affected by their deaths that they also lose their identity.Another important aspect of this first stanza is that it establishes the narrator as well as the subject. This narrator is seemingly out of control of the situation. Compare this to the opening line of 'Futility', which seems to be a command. From this we could assume that the narrator of this poem is in control. However, we can see that this has changed by the end of the poem. The narrator of 'Futility' is the helpless one, whereas Gunn's narrator is the one in control of the action of the poem.Gunn unravels just a little more in the second stanza by describing what the content of the dream was. This stanza states that the person is 'fleshed out' again. This could be construed as a double entendre in that it could mean that he literally has a body again, but it could also emphasise the debilitating effect of AIDS on the body. Gunn then continues to say that they hugged which aims to squash any unwarranted fear of those with AIDS.This idea of trying to wipe out people's prejudices about AIDS sufferers is continued into the third stanza. This victim of the disease is described as being 'kind'. Giving him this attribute not only recovers some of his lost identity but also re-emphasises that this person is a good human being who does not deserve to be stigmatised or alienated by the rest of us.It is here also that we discover as readers that the narrator understands that, although the person would have come back to reassure him if they could, the dream is something that his own mind created in order to protect itself.In terms of effectiveness, I feel that Wilfred Owen's poem handles the theme of death in the most striking and evocative way. His changing imagery of the sun helps to conjure up pictures in our minds of what he is describing. This makes the profound questions he asks in his poem extremely emotional to read and we really feel for the people around the young soldier as well as the soldier himself.WEBSITES:The Wilfred Owen Association, Copyright Kenneth Simcox , 2000, Viewed on 20/04/06 at 17:15Wilfred Owen, Visited on 22/02/06 at 21:50Between the Lines, Interviews with Poets, Viewed on 23/04/06 at 22:19BOOKSKeegan, Paul (ed.), The Penguin Book of English Verse, 2004, Penguin Classics: St IvesLennard, John, The Poetry Handbook, 2005, Second Ed, Oxford University Press: St Ives


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