By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Futility’ was one of just five poems by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) that were published before his death, aged 25, on 4 November 1918. Like all of his best-known work it’s a war poem, a brief lyric that focuses on a group of soldiers standing over the dead body of a fallen comrade. Below is Owen’s ‘Futility’ followed by a brief analysis of some of its linguistic features and its imagery.
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
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 uses one of Owen’s favourite techniques, that of pararhyme or half-rhyme (sun/unsown, once/France, seeds/sides, star/stir) alongside full rhyme (snow/know, tall/all).
But the two kinds of rhyme – one perfect and neat, the other denying us the sense of neatness or ‘closure’ provided by a full rhyme – meet in the rhyme at the end of the penultimate line of each stanza: that is to say, ‘now’ (‘If anything might rouse him now’) is a slight off-rhyme of snow/know, and ‘toil’ wants to rhyme with tall/all, but just misses. (Indeed, ‘at all’ in the last line even contains a ‘tall’ within it: ‘at all‘ – suggesting an inability to move beyond that paralysing final question.
Similarly, in the first stanza, ‘sun’ rhymes – or half-rhymes – with ‘unsown’, but the sun threatens to reappear in ‘fields unsown’ – a fleeting and illusory reminder of the sunny days of yore when this soldier was ‘At home’ before the war.)
This is worth mentioning because it points up Owen’s clever use of rhyme and pararhyme: from the beginning, there is something amiss in the scenario that is the subject of the poem.
This is revealed explicitly when we get to the second stanza, but the off-rhymes of the first stanza provide a hint of the dark thoughts and the sense of anger that dominate the second half of the speaker’s speech (if we can assume he is speaking the entire thing to his comrades – ‘Move him into the sun’).
Although the speaker and his fellow soldiers seem to think that the ‘kind old sun’ will be able to revive their dead comrade, we readers know that this is hopeful optimism if not naivety on the part of the speaker. Sure enough, the first stanza features more purposeful and confident language: ‘Move him into the sun’, ‘Always it woke him’, ‘The kind old sun will know’.
The second stanza begins in a similarly confident manner – with the imperative, ‘Think how it wakes the seeds’ – but this confident voice disappears in the ensuing lines, being replaced by the angry use of blunter questions.
There is some reason to doubt whether they are meant to be rhetorical questions. If the speaker of the poem really does begin the poem believing that the sun will be able to rouse the dead man, it may be that the questions which appear in the second stanza are genuine, asked through disbelief and a growing disillusionment.
(For what it’s worth, we think the dash at the start of the penultimate line of the second stanza marks the point at which the speaker goes from bewildered disbelief to out-and-out anger, and that this last question, at least, is a rhetorical one.)
A few words on the image of the sun might be worthwhile here. The second stanza starts with the speaker pointing out all of the seeming miracles the sun can perform: thanks to its power, seeds are transformed into flowers, and long ago, the sun even turned the ‘cold star’ that is Earth into the planet that it now is.
‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ picks up the idea in the Bible (specifically, the Book of Genesis) that the first man, Adam, was fashioned from clay which God took from the earth. Was the miracle of Creation all in vain – all, in a word, futile? (Hence the poem’s title, of course.)
And going back further than this, why did the sun bother to wake the earth, to rouse it from its cold dead state so that life might flourish on the land, when man is doomed to die in a snowy field, as this soldier has?
The use of imagery is also very skilful. The ‘clays’ of Earth are echoed by the ‘clay’ that is mankind, pointing up the Bible’s link between man and the earth. Similarly, in that last line, the reference to ‘earth’s sleep’, as well as describing the dormant state of the earth before it warmed up and became habitable, also suggests the eternal ‘sleep’ of the dead soldier, once again connecting mankind and the earth.
‘Futility’ is not a difficult poem and its images and meaning are, on the whole, straightforward. Nevertheless, we hope this short analysis of the poem’s language, imagery, and themes has helped to bring out some of the subtler ideas in it. You can discover more of Owen’s poetry with our analysis of another of his great war poems, ‘Arms and the Boy’, and our discussion of his classic sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
If you found this analysis of Owen’s poem helpful, you might also like our short analysis of ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and our piece on what makes ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas one of Britain’s best-loved poems. For more war poetry, check out our analysis of John McCrae’s classic poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.