A soldier struggles with the finality – and meaninglessness – of a death on the battlefield.
‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen
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?
Analysis of ‘Futility’
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker asks for the dead soldier to be moved into the sun in the hope that it will wake him as it would from sleep. However, faced by the finality of death, the speaker breaks down into anger, feeling hopeless about life itself.
The first stanza of the poem is gentle and tender. The sun is characterised as being wise and caring and the soldier is to be moved into its warmth and light. The speaker also remembers the safety of ‘home’ and the intimacy of the ‘whispering’ fields.
The sun is reliable and powerful, waking the soldier ‘even in France’, a foreign country far from the safety of his home. Yet this reliability makes the sun’s inability to wake him now even more striking and frustrating. If the sun could always wake him before, why can’t it do so now?
Intriguingly, there is little hint of war and death. In fact, the first real indication comes late in such a short poem with the line ‘if anything might rouse him now’. After all, the speaker is in denial, still hoping the soldier will awake in the sun.
The mention of France is also the only subtle suggestion of war. Many British soldiers were sent to fight in France in World War 1. This connotation of France as a battleground rather than a holiday destination will only really be picked up if the reader is familiar with the context of the poem and know that Wilfred Owen is specifically a poet of WW1, himself a British soldier.
However, the tone of the poem changes dramatically in the second stanza, ending with three frustrated questions that resist resolution. The gentle confidence and predictability of the first stanza is gone.
The speaker is in disbelief that although the sun ‘wakes the seeds’ from the ground, it can’t awake a body that is ‘still warm’. He bitterly calls the sun ‘fatuous’, or foolish, and rages at the futility of the sun even bothering ‘to break earth’s sleep’, or rising, ‘at all’.
The needless death of the soldier has made the speaker feel so hopeless that he has become disillusioned with all of life. Overwhelmed with feelings of futility, the speaker asks – what’s the point of anything if young men can so suddenly and easily lose their lives in war?