FUTILITY by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen's poem is a memorial to an Unknown Soldier; a poetic equivalent,
in its way, to the famous Tomb in Westminster Abbey. We have no idea who
the dead man is; we do not know whether he was even known to the poet, except
in his death. Like the Unknown Soldier he is nameless, but with an anonymity
at the opposite pole to abstraction. Our most personal experiences of love
and loss respond for him. He is every young man dead and squandered in war.
The economy of the poem is remarkable. It is short enough to
be inscribed on a tomb, and has something of the same finality. The
vocabulary is simple and homely. Nearly all the words are monosyllabic: they
move with an even tread, until the second stanza, lines three to four, when
this evenness is deliberately broken, to point the mounting emotional intensity.
Notice the very characteristic use of assonance-sun/sown; once/France; snow/now/know;
seeds/sides; star/stir; tall/toil/all. These half- rhymes leave a sense of
incompleteness on the ear. Cheated of our natural expectation of a rhyme,
we are referred back from the poem itself as a formal triumph (which it is)
to the poem's theme: to the frustration of form, of pattern, in the ruthless
destructiveness of war.
The poem's tone is governed by the imperatives and questions
through which it progresses. All of these are tinged with irony, of the kind
peculiar to imperatives when there is nothing useful to be done, and to questions
when there is nothing hopeful to be known. The words introducing these imperatives
and questions are 'Move' (line I), 'If' (line 6), 'Think' (line 8), 'Are'
(line 10), 'Was it' (line 12) and '0 what' (line 13).
The word 'move' is not a literal imperative, since Owen is not
addressing anyone on the spot. The dead man is not really to be moved into
the sun, and we know that it could no longer reach him if he were. The imperative
is, therefore, profoundly ironic, though its main function is of another
kind. The real directive is to the reader; we are mentally to move the dead
body into contrast with the life-giving sun - a contrast which is to permeate
the poem as a whole. The force of this is nearer to contemplation than to
action, nearer to a question than to a normal imperative.
'Futility' is, indeed, a passionate meditation, conducted by
the poet in the presence of any of us who choose
to hear. In line 2 the word 'gently' intensifies the ironic suggestiveness
established in the first line, of loving care in a situation where love and
care are no longer of any use. Gentleness is linked with the sun, which takes
on attributes first of parental love (the 'kind old sun' waking a young man
in the mornings of life), and then of godhead:
Think how it woke the seeds,-
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. . .
The sun is certainly a symbol of life, and may even in the chemistry of creation
have been its cause, but all the suggestions surrounding it are ironic. The
word 'awoke' reminds us of our own summer wakings to a world of promise and
hope, but the very reminder is through a desolating realisation that for
this man, in this place, waking and hoping already belong to the past. The
'always' in line 4 is in fact an 'always until', though the word 'until'
is held back until line 5 where it comes, after dominating line 4 by its
unstated presence, with tremendous effect. The phrase 'fields unsown' simultaneously
evokes the rich promises of youth, with all of life stretching out before,
and the bitter certainty that these particular fields never will be sown:
even in presenting itself, the promise is conjured from the future into the
past. Then in line 6 we pass to a rhetorical condition:
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
There is no real 'if' here, as we very well know. This is that agonising
'if', more poignant perhaps than any word in the language, with which we
ponder something that might once have been alterable, but is now fixed and
terrible in the past. It directs our attention even more harrowingly to the
sun, in its enigmatic relationship with the dead man. Why should this life-
giving warmth, which brought him gently and patiently to life, be so utterly
helpless at the very moment of death? The poem actually challenges sentimentality,
in the phrase 'the kind old sun'-only, however, to confront it with an annihilating
bitter- ness: with the certainty that since the 'if' is not real, then to
weep, or to scold, or to appeal will be equally without avail. The
sun is confronted with the final coldness beyond its powers. The implications
of the opening line are realised in the fullest degree.
Stanza 2 opens with another imperative, even further removed from action
than the first. 'Think how it wakes the seeds. . .' As the poet moves to
a wider questioning of creation itself, he also deepens our sense of the
personal. The soldier does not simply represent mystery, he is the mystery
incarnate. The poem proceeds to its central questions, impassioned and resonant,
which carry what has gone before to a new level of agonised clarity:
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved-still warm-so hard to stir?
That 'still warm', referring back as it does to the sun, is almost unbearable.
Only after this does the anger underlying the question become fully explicit-in
the final question, charged with its own bitter answer:
O what made
fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
Why did all this suffering have to be? It is the cry of Job. What, we may
ask in conclusion, is the poem's theme? The obvious answer can be given in
Owen's own famous words, 'war, and the pity of war'. (It is interesting to
compare 'Futility' with other attitudes to violent death that can be found
in this collection: with Yeats's 'Easter 1916', Auden's 'Spain', and Ted
Hughes's 'The Casualty'.) Behind the poem's very existence there is protest
at the folly of men, who have turned creation into destruction, and effected
this terrible despoiling of youth.
But notice that though the protest is certainly savage, it is
never cynical. Owen's close attention to the dead man is in- separable from
human compassion. He believes that an individual still matters, and not least
in the moment of his death. The poem's title is 'Futility', but deeper levels
of futility have been plumbed since he wrote. The mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth
century has led some writers to doubt whether individuals have any meaning
or value at all. Wilfred Owen is well on the other side, the human side,
of that futility. His lament for a unique individual is closer to tragedy
than to despair.
And this suggests a final comment, which must surely be made. Though the
poem's theme is war, it is also a poem about death. Is it not profoundly
relevant to any death, and to any premature death especially, whether in
battle or not? In its deepest implications 'Futility' is not only a social
protest but a religious questioning. It faces the mystery of life in sentiments
that would remain profoundly true for the bereaved, even if war itself could
by some miracle be abolished. The 'futility' of the title does not refer
simply to human follies; it refers beyond these, also, to the human condition
itself. It is one side of the tragic vision of man-the perception that
if an is the jest and riddle of the world, this is only because he is first
and chiefly its glory. The poem moves through questions which are essentially
religious, whether they are accompanied by religious belief or not.