Futility – Wilfred Owen

Futility

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Analysis

Have you ever heard the phrase, “resistance is futile?” In other words, to resist is futile. But what does the word actually mean? The dictionary says that the word “futile” means “pointless” or “incapable of producing any useful result.” With this in mind it is easy to see just what Wilfred Owen thinks of his predicament in the trenches towards the end of the first world war. He was an officer who was injured, hospitalized in England and then sent back to the Somme, along with thousands of others, including my Grandfather. When Owen was in France he wrote some of his poems. Other poems of his were written whilst in hospital in the UK.

This one shares his disdain for what is happening, his sense that the war has been a futile waste of time, effort and humanity. This then is another example, like Dulce Et Decorum Est [my favourite poem of all time and one to teach to a Y8 group just before lunch – always has the desired effect] which tells all those people and poets like Jessie Pope at home that it is not noble to die for one’s country and it is not a good thing to be killing other human beings in such a fashion as we did.

All is futile; that is the message and one that is shared in so few words as to make it more powerful than ever. The second word tells us that this is about someone he more than likely knew, a man who he says needs turning “into the sun.” When alive, this same sun would awake him “with its touch.” Indeed, being in France, in the countryside, the same sun “always …. awoke him.” Clearly this is about a man who loved the openness of the fields and the countryside, who favoured the sun’s beams and warmth and revelled in its glory given to him by God. He was in life, a nature loving individual who could see and appreciate the beauty of nature all around him.

But now, as a lifeless corpse, in “this morning and this snow,” he resides in the harshness and cold reality of warfare, unable to appreciate the life that once was his a constant reminder to his comrades of the savagery of war. There is a callous sense of harsh reality in the words “if anything might rouse him now, the kind old sun will know” because the sun is the only thing offering warmth on this cold winter’s day in the snow of the Somme.

In this futile war, thinks Owen, where the sun is the only warmth available to anyone, there is the sense of futility all around him, in everything he sees, in everything he does. He asks the rhetorical question to all who would read; to the Jessie Popes at home encouraging young men to go off and fight. He asks “was it for this the clay grew tall?” He is asking was it for this that the ground before him grew into the muddy quagmire or the snowy hell that engulfed bodies and sucked them down into the mud, to lie there forever being churned by tractor blades and rotor shears? If so, then there has to be something wrong with humanity and its desire and need to kill. This is both social comment and political polemic.

He adds “O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all?” Fatuous means silly or pointless, so one can see here that Owen is criticizing heavily the belief in the justness and positive status attached to warfare. Clearly, his experience has coloured his views. He has seen bodies blown up, rats gnawing on dead friends as they lie in no man’s land [the space between German and English forces] and he has seen the Shell Shock [modern day PTSD] survivors trying to come to terms with the effects of what they had to endure. His war was labelled “The war to end all wars” which in itself was a futile and fatuous title; silly, stupid and pointless and Owen is magnificently sharing these thoughts with the reader here.

Some notes from the Wilfred Owen Society Website

Futility

The front line on a bright winter morning. A soldier has recently died though we don’t know precisely how or when. Owen appears to have known him and something of his background and he ponders nature’s power to create life, setting it against the futility of extinction.

Only five of his poems were published in Wilfred Owen’s lifetime. FUTILITY was one of them. It appeared, together with HOSPITAL BARGE, in “The Nation” on 15th June 1918, shortly after being written – at Ripon probably – although Scarborough is a possibility. At about this time Owen categorised his poems, FUTILITY coming under the heading “Grief”.

It takes the form of a short elegiac lyric the length of a sonnet though not structured as one, being divided into seven-line stanzas. Owen uses the sun as a metaphorical framework on which to hang his thoughts.

The sun wakes us (lines 2 & 4), stimulates us to activity (3), holds the key of knowledge (7), gives life to the soil (8), gave life from the beginning, yet (13) in the end the “fatuous” sunbeams are powerless.

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