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Futility -- Wilfred Owen

Guest poem sent in by Vijay Victor
(Poem #288) Futility
 Move him into the sun--
 Gently its touch awoke him once,
 At home, whispering of fields unsown.
 Always it awoke 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?
-- Wilfred Owen
   I feel this poem, more specifically, the last five lines epitomises
futility. I like the way he evokes contrasting sensations using the images
of sun (warmth) and snow (cold). "Cold star" is ultimate!

  "The kind old sun ... whispering of fields unsown" also "wakes the
seeds". Owen seems to be getting us to empathise with the 'benevolent'
sun. I can even feel sorry that all his work was of no avail.

  Further, i feel his description of the creation of man ('clay grew tall')
captures the essence of the act far better than any painting i have ever
seen.(i'm sure many would beg to disagree here but still). Much more can be
said i guess but i requested higher authorities to do that.

vijay

[Vijay asked me to interject a few comments about the form of the poem - I
wasn't intending to, since (as I must reemphasise) this is not about
critical analysis of the poems, it's about personal response and
appreciation. Still, I couldn't not comment on Owen's use of half-rhymes[1]
- especially interesting in the last three lines of each verse, where the
middle line is tied in to the surrounding two without the choppy effect that
a pure ccc rhyme scheme would have had.

[1] 'consonance' if you want a more technical-sounding term, but it's
considerably weaker a word

m. ]

501 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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neil.kelly1 said...

The line "Was it for the clay grew tall?" the has connotations with the bible which said that man was made from the earth.

Marion. E. Barr said...

unlike owen's previous poems there are no graphically sickening images of grotesque deaths instead we are moved by the sheer sadness of the situation. the language is simple reflecting the persona's severe disillusionment and despair yet the images that lie within this simple language move from the particular to the universal in their significance.
as the persona tries to convince us of his reasoning for his commands, his arguments only bring him to revelations on the futility of these commands;the young boy's life; the war; and ultimately that of Man and life on earth.
The fact that someone so young has completely lost faith in humanity is perhaps the most disturbing truth of all.

annemaria said...

I would like to submit my own composition on this subject- inspired by a great deal of Humanity, Katherine Mansfield, Ibsen, Chekov. As the most inspired poem of the Great War Futility stands beside "All Quiet on the Western Front" and the great performance of Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity" and the photo-cinematic realism of "The Killing Fields" My humble and inauspicious contribution and comment, a little dated, no doubt and in no way reflecting The Middle Eastern situation or its total contemporariness in the modern tecnological age-we all hoped war would be dropped, didn't we?

On Seeing Barry Lyndon (20 years later I wrote)

Line upon line
of soldiers :
Falling;
Slain
For what?
A Monarch's dream
of a kingdom that WILL be his
A Country's dream
of another realm to own and rule.

And then the pagentry
the garden
the tete a tetes
the hidden glance cast
not meant.
the flouncing, the cavorting.
(and, of course, the coquettish
look)
...then all the rest.
Most of all it was the boredom
that held it up

I looked to Chekov and Ibsen
and enquired
"was it like this also for you?
I still see line upon line of soldiers falling.
is it just for another story
they died for
and the lucky few?"

Anne-Maria Wright. I prefer as my writing name Anne Maria Horan

Simpson Mark (NESL-IT) said...

I studied war poetry at school, and this poem sticks in my mind. The
question I remember having struggled with most was - is the final question
"O what made fatuous sunbeams toil.." justified, or is it over the top?.

Since the soldier has died, there is little more the sun can do than bring
surface warmth to his skin. The idea that the sunbeams can "toil" to make a
"full nerved" man come back to life is fatuous and futile.

For me, the anger at the promise of the sun's life giving power is perhaps
an expression of Wilfreds own anger. His anger at the war, and all the good
that is promised, that seems only to be useless and futile.

Still gets me thinking after all these years, especially in today's climate.

Jessica Mills said...

The last lines of the poem are not asking why the sun cannot bring the
dead man back to life. The line "woke, once, the clays of a cold star"
refers to when man first rose from the clay, and the last three lines
refer back to this, asking the sun why he bothered at all to imbue man
with a life that he was destined to lose or waste.

Jess

Ashleigh Burke said...

hey.. this isn't junk mail, im a highschool student who read your
comment about the poem "Futility" by Wilfred Own, and i loved how you
looked deeper into his meaning of "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil.."
I would love any extra information you could give me about this poem,
your thoughts and ideas. You see we are analyzing poetry at school and I
need some tips on this particular poem.. please write back a.s.a.p,

Kindly yours
Ashleigh

Terry McKnight said...

The poem is about the cold, it seems to me. The speaker is a soldier
looking on a just-shattered, still warm, fallen comrade. The speaker is
shaking from shock, fear and the bitter cold - the cold inside as well as
outside. He is hoping the sun can save him, though it cannot save his
friend; that the sun can thaw his cold limbs and heart and awake in him
seeds of hope. But, the poem ends with despair. The sunbeams are finally
labelled "fatuous" - which means "foolish - more at battle" (Webster).
Foolish of him to hope that the sun could have any influence or meaning in
war. The "kind old sun" cannot stop bullets and maybe life as we know it
cannot survive this war. trm

Ms. Ruth Spiteri Bezzina said...

Of all O's poetry, besides quotes like "old lie", "like the devil's sick of sin", die like cattle"... this poem is really a blue print. It so powerfully portrays futility that attempts at explaining its message would only almost go all the way. Why can't the sun giver of life, the powerful entity that created planets and plants not able to wake up this dead soldier?

L Ellis said...

Wilfred Owen presents us with many compelling and thought evoking concepts throughout his poignant and moving poems. They are dramatic and memorable, whether describing physical horror or the unseen, mental anguish. Some such ideas that are extensively portrayed in his poetry are the concept of inducing pity, sympathy and awareness of the horrors of war, the unjust loss of youth, innocence and identity, depicting the brutal and grotesque nature of war, the unstoppable temperament of war and the criticism of the propaganda being presented to the public by the government at the time. Another recurring theme in Owen's poetry is the notion of unseen scars. Though the soldiers may return alive or uninjured, their lives will never be the same. The beauty of Owen's poetry is that

issues previously unconsidered are brought to our attention.

Futility is one of Owen's more emotional poems dealing with the death of a young soldier due to appalling conditions. It is a poem of hope and desperation presented from Owen's perspective. The soldier being describe was one of his friends so therefore making this a more personal text.
Straight away the word choice of the title "Futility" exemplifies the pointless and senseless nature of war and human sacrifice. This is similarly evident in Anthem For Doomed Youth. Throughout this poem, Owen try's to convey the same feelings of senselessness of war as depicted in "Dulce et Decorum Est", "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "The Last Laugh". The first stanza reveals a positive and hopeful tone. And the first line of the poem also introduces the personified, life-giving sun. The sun itself is depicted in positive terms throughout this poem and is used by Owen as a metaphor for life, "how it wakes the seeds." "Woke, once, the clays of a cold star." The sun is symbolic of vitality and wisdom "The kind old sun will know". The responder realises that the commanding nature of the first line is but a plea for the survival of the poet's friend. The optimistic tones of the 2nd through 7th lines of the poem portray the composer, working himself up to a futile hope that the sun will be able to fix his friend.

But as the poem progresses Owens cynical and resentful attitude is discovered. An iambic trimeter is used to set up the rhyme and initiate this mood of sorrow and bitterness as Owen is mourning the loss of his friend. Throughout the second stanza Owen ponders the question that death awakens and is sure that the sun is deceiving him "Think of how it wakes the seeds- are limbs, so dear achieved, to hard to stir?" The rhetorical questions asked force the responder to consider the futility of war. Owen is puzzled and confused to why this powerful entity cannot revive his friend so he questions the "fatuous" sun. The poet petitions surely the sun can bring back a still warm body to life. Otherwise what is the purpose in life? To be profusely slaughtered on a battlefield? If this is all life is for is it really worth living? The anger and loss of hope in this stanza help keep Owen's hold on the responder firm. As the tone changes, from hope in the first stanza to the anger and reflection of Owen's questions, the responder is moved to appreciate the life that they live without the stresses of war

Peter Lin said...

Hi. I just want to thank everyone who helped with their own interpretation and annotation of the poem. It was very helpful as i am studying war poems in High school at the moment. Thank you again ---

Yr 10, M.C

Aotea Lodge said...

For me one of the key things is the way the poem builds; from the gentleness
of the 1st verse, the implicit helpfulness of trying to revive a comrade, to
the point in the 3rd line of the 2nd verse where the anger breaks through.
The change is fairly unsubtle - from an instructional tone to a declamatory
one. The futility also changes. In the 1st part it is the futility of trying
to revive the dead soldier. In the 2nd it is the futility of creation.

Dave

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I just want to thank everyone who helped with their own interpretation and annotation of the poem. It was very helpful as i am studying war poems in High school at the moment. Thanks

minimalist home said...

he last lines of the poem are not asking why the sun cannot bring the
dead man back to life. The line "woke, once, the clays of a cold star"
refers to when man first rose from the clay, and the last three lines

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