“Futility” Wilfred Owen
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Futility means that something is destined to fail. The quality of producing no valuable effect, or of coming to nothing; uselessness. The structure of the poem is in balanced stanzas – the tenderness and hopefulness at the beginning; the growing bitterness of the second, with its climax. Owen is telling the persona’s story of the death of a comrade as a balance. This has to happen as so many of them died that there still has to be a degree of sanity left in them.
“Futility” mourns the sad ironic death of a soldier, a young man in a young body. An address to the sun, which gave the life to the earth and its inhabitants only for them to be cut down in this futile way, states a larger, more universal irony. The ‘futility’ of the poem concerns this death and all life in which such death occurs. The persona of the poem hopes that the sun will revive the dead one, as it had formerly stirred him whilst he was at home in England. The sun builds a contrast between the dead man’s life earlier in England and his death now in France. Owen makes the persona question if the sun can start life, why can’t it bring it back? The poem moves to the bitterness of the recognition of the ‘futility’ of life, i.e. “dear achieved.”
The theme in this poem is the pointlessness of human sacrifice and indeed, of life itself. The poem is also relevant to larger issues of human existence. He challenges the rhetoric of the nobility of war-service, and giving one’s life for their country. The tone of ‘futility’ conveys the sense of a lament (mourning) for the dead one, tenderly, at the beginning, and intensifies to bitterness at the futility of his death at the end. The change in tone reflects Owen’s change in attitudes towards the war. He started the war believing in the nobility of dying for your country, and the end of this poem is what he changed to.
The irreligious sense of this poem shows how many of the Christians lost faith as a result of WW1 and Owen was one of many. His previous poems talked of religious figures. He talks in this poem, of evolution and the sun beginning all creation, not the Creator. This shows his lack of faith, as he questions if evil is inevitable what is the point to life? The poem questions human existence, because of the evils produced as a result of WW1. ‘Futility’ expresses Owen’s rejection of the idea of goodness and purposefulness of human existence.
The snow is symbolic of the death, which turns a body cold. This is in contrast with the hopefulness of new life in the ‘fields half-sown’ of the soldier’s former life. The poem starts positively, with the hope that the move into the sun might be reviving for the soldier. Owen juxtaposes the tranquillity and beauty of rural England with the hideous battlefields of France. “Gently its touch awoke him at once, At home, whispering of fields half-unsown” Even in the unnatural environment of the battlefields of France he remained his connection with his natural awakenings to the sun, as he did on his farm at home. The sun’s rejuvenating power with the wintry world of death: “Until this morning and this snow” That affectionate personification of the sun might seem encouraging, but it could also be mocking it. The persona of the poem knows that no rousing will be taking place, even as he could like to believe it could, he seems to live in a childlike fantasy hoping for such things.
Owen then makes the persona question the entire purpose of the universe – back to the original creation: “think how it wakes the seeds – woke, once the clays of a cold star” this is the beginning of creation on earth. It ‘woke’ the earth to produce life. This is why he hopes it possible to bring him back to life: “are limbs so dear achieved, are sides Full-nerved, -still warm, – too hard to stir?”Another rhetorical question is when he asks “was it for this the clay grew tall?” showing his curiosity for the purpose for life and the role of humans in protecting the sun’s creations. The poem questions all meaning of life: “O what made the fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth’s sleep at all?” Owen’s opinions of the suns have changed from “kind old sun” to “fatuous sunbeams” where they are purposeless and useless. The passion of his query are emphasises by “O” as he wonders why the earth, which permits such cruelty to its creatures, was ever brought to life in the first place.
The growing intensity of the series of rhetorical questions towards the end of the poem culminates in the devastatingly bitter conclusion, and pauses are used for dramatic emphasis. The rhetorical questions force the reader to answer the questions on the futility of death in warfare.