Wilfred Owen: Poems


Critical appreciation to 'FUTILITY"?

Asked by
Last updated by Aslan
Answers 1
Add Yours

This short but impactful poem was only one of five published during Owen's lifetime. It appeared in the Nation on June 15th, 1918 and was either written at Ripon or Scarborough. Its format is a short elegiac lyric like a sonnet, though it is not structured as one. It features Owen's famed pararhyme –sun, sown; star, stir; tall, toil – which disturbs the natural rhythm and gives the poem a slightly tortured mood. It is included in composer Benjamin Britten's 1961 War Requiem, which intersperses several of Owen's poems among the Latin passages.

The poem concerns a soldier or several soldiers moving a recently deceased fellow soldier into the sun, hoping its warmth will revive him. Despite the sun's life-giving properties, it can do nothing for the young man; his life is cut short like the "fields half-sown". This was a reality known all too well to the poet – young men were being killed before their lives had barely begun.

The imagery regarding the sun contrasts its vitality and warmth with its ultimate inability to wake one who has died. In the first stanza the sun is personified and described as "kind" and "old", its warmth ancient and affirming. The speaker is quiet and gently hopeful when he asks that the body be moved into the sun. Many of Owen's poems focus on the bond between man and Nature, and here Nature seems like it could revive the speaker's friend.

In the second stanza, however, the speaker becomes more upset and questioning, the tone shifting to accommodate the change in his mindset. The speaker is confused how the sun could wake the seeds and animate a fully-formed man (the Biblical "clay" of Adam), and now can do nothing. This loss of one precious life makes the speaker bitterly wonder why "the fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth's sleep at all". Death has made a mockery of creation; the critic Gertrude M. White writes that "in violating their own human nature, in reversing by violence the natural order, men alienate themselves from Nature herself."

The meaning of the title, then, is the futility of trying to understand how nature could create life but stand by as it is laid to waste. The critic Arthur E. Lane sees Owen creating a "poetic transformation of battlefield death, death particular and individual, into death as the absurd and ultimate denial of the value of life."