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David Des Granges The Saltonstall Family c.1636–7. According to notes from the Tate: ‘The painting is thought to show Sir Richard Saltonstall (1595-1650) of Chipping Warden, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, with his family. Read more notes from the Tate.

It seems apt after the last post concerning the word peace and related pacifist to highlight the enthusiasm of my grade 7 class for the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen’s writing highlights the horror and despair of war in the trenches.

Poetry by heart

Students learned by heart one of Owen’s poems, an art faded from fashion in the classroom these days. You’ll note, discerning reader, that I did not say memorize or rote learn. I really hoped students would be caught in the web of words, to feel and be aware of the emotion or atmosphere built by the poet. I wanted them to go beyond a ‘da-dum, da-dum’ monotonous reading, go beyond rote memorization, rather take their poem to heart.

We muttered the poems a lot. Students carried copies of the poem in their pockets. They said them in the shower, while waiting for the bus, on the bus and on one occasion on the hockey field! We watched documentaries, examined photos and listened to various actors’ interpretation of these poems. We talked about the poems with one another, collected images and lines we liked and reshaped them into our own ‘found poetry’. Somehow what the students had thought to be a torture – learn a poem by heart- actually became a pleasure. It did seep deeply into their being:

‘... I don’t have the greatest memory but visualizing and drawing a picture in my mind helped a lot. But then I realized that picturing the poem actually helped me dig deeper and allowed me to connect with the words internally. Taking the words and turning it to a story in my mind made me feel like I was there to witness the destruction. I ‘glided’ around my room while reciting the poem to my brother, waving my arms in the air as if I were giving a speech…. when I first got the hang of all the verses, I began reciting the poem monotonously and later began to develop the feelings. Slowly I began to work some pauses in the poem. I believe that listening to music and singing does help with knowing when to pause and how to build tension.‘(Amanda on learning Anthem for Doomed Youth)

I would move and recite it over and over. I also said it in the bus much to the annoyance of the person in front of me (her name was Ann). For some of the lines I see pictures such as the line, ‘Until this morning and this snow’, I picture the winter morning with a corpse on the ground. My favourite line is: ‘Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.’ I think it’s because it is different from the other lines because it is a bit hard to say. I thought that the whole poem represented hopelessness, from the friend who watched his friend die and being able not to do anything about it and hopelessness from preventing the slaughtering of men (like cattle) in the war.’ (Ha An on Futility)

‘I used multiple strategies to learn this poem, Futility. One of them was to recite it on the bus, and just to think about it when I’m doing random things. One of my theories is that it enters my temporal lobe to store it for long-memory – and not let it slip into the subconscious so it is not lost. I brought emotion to this poem by pausing, changing pace to indicate panic or calm, changing pitch and volume to indicate emphasis and mood. Learning this poem by heart helped me to understand what Wilfred Owen was trying to convey and certainly to understand the mood more. I have donated hundreds or thousands of neurons in my brain to Wilfred Owen’s poems, or rather meaning I have gained the ability to understand loss on a mass scale, and the effect it has on those back home.'(Josh)


Inevitably we examined the word futility, the title of one of Owen’s poems. Establishing the morphemes was at this stage of the year relatively straightforward with two hypothesises <fute+ile+ity> and <futile+ity>. We confirmed the suffix’-ile’ by the words: senile, virile, ductile, fragile. Both fragile and ductile helped us to see that this indeed was a suffix. We understood that the ‘-ile’ in fragile could be substituted by ‘-ment’ and that in ductile the -ile could be removed to produce a free base element ‘duct ‘. We knew that the final, non-syllabic ‘e’ in our hypothesized base ‘fute’ is removed by the vowel suffix ‘-ile’.

Futile, we discovered entered English in 1575 although it is not certain whether this was via Middle French or a directly from Latin futilis which meant ‘vain, worthless, useless’, a figurative sense of ‘pouring out easily, easily poured’. Futility took a little longer to be used in writing – attested in 1623, just six years before the painting above. Latin fūtilis according to the O.E.D. meant ”that easily pours out, leaky’. This Latin etymon came from the Latin infinitve fundĕre to pour out. And this is where the rather small ‘fute’ family becomes interesting.

For a while we were convinced that words such as refute, future, confute were relatives but no, merely a superficial resemblance of similar letters in the same order as our base, but definitely not related.This is apparent when you consider meaning. In the words above there is no underlying sense of outpouring, of worthlessness. Refute and confute have derived from a Latin root futare meaning to beat and future ‘from Latin futurus “going to be, yet to be,” as a noun, “the future,” ‘irregular suppletive future participle of esse “to be”‘.  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Meet the family

Below is the rather small ‘fute’ family. You’ll notice as we did that ‘-ile’ occurs in all the related words. Should we then analyze it as such?  Is it better to keep it as the stem knowing it has derived from the Latin suffix ‘ -ilis and -īlis, forming adjectives, sometimes also substantives, as in fossilis fossil, civīlis civil; agilis agile, juvenīlis juvenile.‘ (O.E.D.) Substantives? Swimming out of my depth here! ‘Of a word: denoting a substance; designating a person, place, or thing. Chiefly nouns.’  (Thankyou O.E.D.)

We recognized it would not be ‘wrong’ to analyze the word futile as ‘futile’ , a free base, as the others in the immediate family build on this stem. However, we are now prepared with the analysis of  ‘fute’ as a bound base element, for any new word to English that sheds the ‘-ile’ suffix! Perhaps an action will one day be regarded as futous.

I enjoyed the discovery of the obsolete or rare futilitous as used in 1765 by  Lawrence Sterne in the hilarious Life of Tristram Shandy VIII. xiii. 36   ‘Love is..one of the most Agitating Bewitching..Futilitous..of all human passions.‘  While futilitous might have faded from the English lexicon, I see a small gap where perhaps futous may creep in!

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However, this is not the family in its entirety. Regard the profusion of relatives below.Note the pouring , casting, scattering sense inherent in all members of the family.

IMG_4630 The family ‘fute’ belongs to a wider family from Latin fundĕre-fusus: to pour, cast metals, scatter, rout. The Latin infinitive fundĕre and the fourth principal part fusus, alert us to the possibility of a twin base element as in confound~confusion. So ‘fute’, ‘found’,’fuse’ ‘fund’,’font’,’fond’ and ‘funnel’ are the bases derived from this root. All the words above, as the individuals within any family, carry their own stories.

Refusenik is perhaps the newest to the family from Russian otkaznik , a Jew who was refused permission to emigrate, particularly to Isreal (1970 or earlier), from otkazat′ to refuse (Old Russian ot″kazati ) (O.E.D.). The Russian has been ‘partially translated’ (Online Etymology Dictionary) so that the verb ‘otkazat′ is replaced by the English refuse. It has now broadened to any person who refuses to do something, especially as a form of protest.

Examining the individual is interesting, but when the whole family is assembled and viewed together in a group shot or portrait, you glean greater insight and can discern the family traits. The Saltonstall family above is interesting, two children, a baby likely to a second wife, all while acknowledging the first wife who is perhaps represented dead but approving in the bed. I am intrigued by the way the past is recognized and connects in the present in this portrait. This family portrait was painted around the same time as the word futility had first been attested in England, a mere twelve years later.  Would the young Saltonstall children or their parents have used the word futility? Would the first wife have thought futile this display of her presence, recumbent in bed, appearing to give her benign blessing to the continuance of family?

Below student’s poetry inspired by Wilfred Owen and their videos using images of World War One.

You hear them whispering,

Wailing in their dreams:

Drowning, choking,

In a green sea,

Caught up in their vile sleep.

Woken by their writhing,

Fumbling for their masks,

Before they realize they are not drowning

In the thick green light.

They are haunted by their dreams,

Until those dreams become reality.

And through the misty panes

They see their friends dying as cattle.

And in this moment,

When they realize that they will never find glory,

It is with a hanging face

that they limp to safety.

But now,

Through death’s monstrous anger

At escaping her once more,

They run into enemy fire

And overcome by fatigue

They say their final goodbyes. 


 ‘Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form. It’s emotional noise. That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it. Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads.’ (Andrew Motion, read his full text here )