Despite Wilfred Owen‘s prodigious writing, only five poems were ever published in his lifetime – probably because of his strong anti-war sentiment, which would not have been in line with British policy at the time, particularly in their attempt to gather rather more and more people to sign up for the war. Futility was one of the poems that was published, appearing in a published magazine known as ‘The Nation’ on the 15th of June, 1918, shortly after being written. It was written in Ripon, scholars believe, in May 1918.
It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. . . Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.
Ever Wilfred x
— Excerpt from Wilfred Owen’s final letter to his mother.
Futility takes the form of a short elegy. An elegy, or an elegiac poem, was a form of writing that had its first depiction in the 16th century, but had not been gratuitously used before. Only a handful of famous elegiac poems come to mind, chief of which is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. An elegy was considered to be a lament – a crying out for the loss of a beloved, and was used primarily in the romantic sense. Once more, Owen subverts the trope by applying it to a soldier, and while scholars who point out Owen’s sense of latent homoeroticism in his poems are not wrong, one should also consider the closeness that Owen felt towards his fellow brothers-in-arms.
He wrote, ‘ “I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can …’. Good or bad, the immense strain put on Owen by pushing him to lead the charge contributed to his poetry, as well as to the growing sense of misanthropy that he suffered as soon as he had returned to war. He even wrote to Sassoon, blaming him for making him return: “You said it would be a good thing for my poetry if I went back. That is my consolation for feeling a fool. This is what the shells scream at me every time: “Haven’t you got the wits to keep out of this?”” Sasoon, of course, had done no such thing. Owen was merely overworked, and close to his breaking point.
Futility follows the aftermath of a battlefield. A soldier has died, and his companions reminisce on death, and its proximity to wakefulness. Images of death and life are intertwined throughout the poem, and the final effect is of a poem that is close to Biblical, tortured and beautiful, but ultimately a lament on the waste of innocent lives.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke 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?
The poem begins by addressing the companions of the dead soldier, urging them to ‘move him into the sun’. In a land of such gridlocked clouds and perpetual rain, Owen makes much of the inclusion of light; light, in his poems, takes on the importance of a deity, aside from its obvious connections to Owen’s own religious upbringing. By prompting the assembled soldiers to move him into the sun, Owen draws the image of the sun as a life-giving component, of a god who could wake up the soldier with its touch. He makes the landscape, and the environment, a living creation, ready and willing to awaken the soldier, and says so as much in the next few lines. Owen writes, “gently, its touch woke him once / At home, whispering of fields half-sown.”
Given the subject and the context of the poem – a dead soldier – the references to home and to fields half-sown take on a bittersweet twist. It is not only that he is unlawfully young, dead because of this war, but the death itself has not allowed him to prepare anything. His fields are ‘half-sown’, he was unprepared to die. The reference to ‘home’ draws a parallel image of emptiness, of something that has been irreparably changed, and not allowed to return to its original form.
By drawing the connection between the sun, and home, and how it ‘always woke him’, even in France, Owen slips in a little bit of hope. The soldier fought for his country, Owen seems to be implying, partly to protect his home. He has always considered that he would return to it, not to be dead in a foreign field in France, left to languor among the soil. Thus the first stanza ends on that lingering trace of hope – hope that is now dashed, as the soldier himself has died.
The second stanza opens with a similar image – that of soil, and seeds. It states, “Think how it wakes the seeds-” showing that life, regardless of the soldier’s death, will go on. Life has continued for much grander things, for much bigger things, for much more traumatic things; and, once again, Owen draws a connection between life, as the soil, and the man, now devoid of it. Once again, that tremor of hope lightens – as if by burying him, they might be able to bring the soldier back to life – but it is futile. There is no hope to awaken him, not now that he is dead, but yet Owen tries again – ‘woke once the clay of a cold star’, he writes, alluding to the Biblical story of man created out of Earth, of God populating the planet with people he had formed in his image.
There is so much hope in this poem that, throughout, the reader might even be lulled into believing that he will wake, that he will come back to the earth. Owen asks, “Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides / Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?” Why is it, says Owen, that earth lives, while man does not? Surely, it should be the other way around. This is Owen’s religious crises coming to a head, Owen’s understanding of religion slowly skewing towards the agnostic and the disbelieving.
The final few lines take a philosophical twist. Owen writes: ” O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?”
Carrying on with the idea that the sun is also God, this is what Owen is asking, begging, to gain an answer to: why did God bother making man and making the Earth only to lead him to this? Were we created just to kill each other? The poem ends on the silence that follows, leaving the questions unanswered, and extinguishing all the sense of building hope that Owen has gently grafted throughout the poem. There is no answer. There is nothing, Owen seems to be saying, but blood and senseless death.
The poem has been twice arranged into a musical setpiece before – once, in 1982, when Virginia Astley set Futility to music, later going to the 1983 album, Promise Nothing, and once in 1961 as part of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.