Wilfred Owen’s “Futility”

One of Wilfred Owen’s great poems is titled “Futility” (1918). It begins with a commander of men at war directing a couple of his soldiers to move into the sun the body of a recently dead comrade:

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 arouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

At the beginning of the poem’s second stanza, Owen’s commander meditates on the resurrecting power of the sun and the irony of its powerlessness before even the warmest dead man:

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?

Then the poem concludes with these cutting lines directed at the universe’s apparent absurdity:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

Here’s a reading of the poem:

And here’s the two stanza poem in full, uninterrupted:

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 arouse 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?

Another way of reading the voice of the poem might be, not as a commander giving an order, then meditating upon futility, but as a soldier (Wilfred Owen himself) overhearing a commander saying of a dead soldier, “Move him into the ground”, or “Move him out of sight.” Instead, the poet says in ironic reply, “Move him into the sun”, triggering the poem.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Wilfred Owen’s “Futility”

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi – Hi

    I came upon this post a few weeks ago, knowing no more than that ‘Owen was a war poet’ (my education being defective in the liberal arts!).

    A wonderful poem which has been haunting me ever since.

    Thank you for your commentary and introducing it to me.

    Colin

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