Futility Poem By Wilfred Owen Essay

Futility - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Futility

The sun personified

The key image is the sun. Owen personifies the sun in the first stanza as ‘kind’, a human characteristic given to an inanimate object whose warmth brings benefit The sun is also described as ‘old’. Whilst scientifically true, the adjective has human connotations when juxtaposed with ‘kind’, almost asking to be made into the phrase ‘kind old man’ or woman or person. Thus sun is a positive force and its action is all about bringing to life the soldier as it does the seeds. Words such as ‘Move him’, ‘gently’, ‘whispering’ and ‘rouse’ all suggest a soft, even motherly force that gently whispers rather than commands. In the final line the sun is said to know what is best for his/her children, reinforcing the image of a loving parent.

In the second stanza the sun is associated with the whole act of creation and generation. Seen almost as a divine entity (countless cultures have believed in a sun god), the sun ‘wakes’ the planet and its seeds into life and vigour. However, this sun clearly does not accord with the traditional attributes of the ChristianGod, who the Bible states is able to give and take life, as well as restore life after death. In a relatively short poem, there are seven references to the act of waking / getting up (l.2,4,6,8,9,11,14) and Owen may have been thinking of a well-known New Testament verse:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Ephesians 5:14

But the sun cannot do what Owen desires, cannot bring the dead to life. And so he decries its ‘fatuous sunbeams’ l.13. It is as if the sun isn’t trying hard enough, is unfeeling and careless. Instead of symbolizing life, it comes to represent the meaninglessness of life.

Other natural images

Owen illustrates his poem with other images from nature. ‘The fields unsown’ l.3 represent the man’s potential, not yet fulfilled. The ‘seeds’ which the sun wakens represent life itself l.8. These seeds should have grown into corn to feed life - as the soldiers ought to become the men of the future. Owen uses the same metaphor in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young where:

The old man slew his son
And half the seed of Europe one by one l.13-14

The harsh coldness of ‘this snow’ l.5 can be read as a symbol of death, which came ‘this morning’, its whiteness perhaps echoing the pallor of the corpse.

In the powerful line: ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ l.12, Owen uses ‘clay’ as an impartial metaphor for the young man’s body. In the Bible, clay or earth is a symbol of God-given life but also of mortality. See Earth, clay, dust. As the well-known lines from the Anglican funeral service put it: 

we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;

(These words build on verses about the brevity of human life also used within the burial service - see Psalms 103:13-16). In his anger Owen takes this image literally, reducing what had been a warm living body to what it has become: cold clay.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Futility

  • The sun, the snow and the ploughed fields of England are the main images in the poem. Make a spider diagram with the sun written or drawn as the centre and identify all the words and phrase which belong to that image.
    • Do the same for the snow and the fields.
    • Identify similar images that Owen uses in other poems and add them to your diagram. This will make a useful revision sheet.

Themes in Futility

Owen is angry at the waste of life. His passionate response to the inability of the sun to rouse the soldier spills over into questioning the meaning of life itself. The fact that the sun, the giver of life and light, is incapable of bringing life back to what was once a warm, strong body makes Owen question its power. The waste of the limbs - with its obvious connection to the injuries inflicted by war – which are ‘so dear achieved’ l.10, seems pointless. So the paradox of life and death is also a theme. If we look at the image of the sun as an image of God, then we see in this poem the death of Owen’s beliefs. 

Futility is an anti-war poem, powerfully evoking the pity of war with its anger and simultaneous tenderness to those who suffer.

Investigating themes in Futility

  • The futility of war and of life itself is the main theme of the poem. How does this bleak theme link with Owen’s other theme, the pity of war?
    • Write about the way in which Owen links pity and futility in this poem.

A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.

A word or phrase which qualifies, describes or adds to the meaning of a noun

the associated meanings of a word; its implications

The image of God on his throne in heaven surrounded by his angels and ministers to whom he makes announcements and where he may be petitioned.

Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.

The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.

The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.

An image or form of comparison where one thing is said actually to be another - e.g. 'fleecy clouds'.

The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.

The Anglican church is the 'Established' or state church of England, the result of a break with the Catholic church under Henry VIII and further developments in the reign of Elizabeth I.

  • English Standard Version
  • King James Version

1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.2And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.3But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.4Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.5For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.7Therefore do not become partners with them;8for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light9(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true),10and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.12For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.13But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,14for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.15Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,21submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.22Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.23For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.29For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,30because we are members of his body.31Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.33However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

1Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;2And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.3But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;4Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.5For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.6Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.7Be not ye therefore partakers with them.8For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light:9(For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;)10Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.11And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.12For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.13But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.14Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.15See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,16Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.17Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.18And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;19Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;20Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;21Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.22Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.23For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.24Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.25Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;26That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,27That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.28So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.29For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:30For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.31For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.32This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.33Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

  • English Standard Version
  • King James Version

1Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!2Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,3who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,4who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,5who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.6The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.7He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.8The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.9He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.10He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.11For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;12as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.13As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.14For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.15As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field;16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.17But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children,18to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.19The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.20Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!21Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!22Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!

1Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.2Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:3Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;4Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;5Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.6The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.7He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.8The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.9He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.10He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.11For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.12As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.13Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.14For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.15As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.16For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.17But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;18To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.19The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.20Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.21Bless ye the LORD, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure.22Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.

Summary

The speaker says to move him into the sun. The touch of the sun had always woken him before, both at home and in France, but it did not this snowy morning. If there is anything that could wake him it would be the "kind old" sun. It wakes the seeds and once it woke the "clays of a cold star". The speaker wonders if the man's limbs and sides, which are still warm, are now too hard to stir. He wonders if this is why the clay "grew tall", and why the "fatuous sunbeams" bothered disturbing the earth's sleep in the first place.

Analysis

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."

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