The front line on a bright winter morning. A soldier has recently died though we don't know precisely how or when. Owen appears to have known him and something of his background and he ponders nature's power to create life, setting it against the futility of extinction.
Only five of his poems were published in Wilfred Owen's lifetime. FUTILITY was one of them. It appeared, together with HOSPITAL BARGE, in "The Nation" on 15th June 1918, shortly after being written - at Ripon probably - although Scarborough is a possibility. At about this time Owen categorised his poems, FUTILITY coming under the heading "Grief".
It takes the form of a short elegiac lyric the length of a sonnet though not structured as one, being divided into seven-line stanzas. Owen uses the sun as a metaphorical framework on which to hang his thoughts.
The sun wakes us (lines 2 & 4), stimulates us to activity (3), holds the key of knowledge (7), gives life to the soil (8), gave life from the beginning, yet (13) in the end the "fatuous" sunbeams are powerless.
"Move him into the sun". "Move" is an inexact word yet we feel the movement has to be gentle, just as the command has been quietly spoken. (What a contrast with the body "flung" into the wagon in DULCE ET DECORUM EST.) Of course, we may have been influenced by "gently" in line 2 which reinforces the previous impression, while "touch" again not quite an exact word, is surely light, reverent even.
A similar tone characterises line 3 with "whispering", so soft a sound. "Fields half-sown" ("unknown" in an earlier version) has its literal sense of work on the farm that this man will never now complete, and a metaphorical one as well, suggesting the wider tragedy of life left unfulfilled.
"Even in France" (line 4). No fields here to speak of, no seeds to grow on ground devastated by war. Does the mention of snow startle? Sun, sowing, may have put a different picture in our minds.
Line 7 "kind old sun" again suggests the softer emotions, "old" being literally true of the sun but again, as used here, a term of affection.
Stanza 1, then, seems tender, almost unchallenging. Stanza 2 is very different.
"Awoke", "woke", "rouse". This poem is about their opposite. In stanza 2 Owen invites us to share his thoughts, and soon a note of bewilderment is struck that becomes near despair. The questions he asks, prompted by the sight of his dead comrade, seem direct and rhetorical at the same time. So much has gone into the making of a man ("so dear achieved"), how can the sun that has done all this in the end do so little? Line 12's "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" has life, in man, reaching its peak merely to come to nothing, and the poem ends, fittingly, in ambiguity:
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's peace at all?
Why ever did the sun do anything so fatuous is one question, while another is - what was the cause of the sun behaving in this way? Depending whether the stress falls on "what" or "made" in line 13. A clever end to Owen's set of imponderables.
Notice the simplicity of the diction which together with the use of so many words of one syllable accords with the elegiac, deeply felt mood. Owen is careful, however, to avoid smoothness. The first and last lines of each stanza are shorter than the rest. Some lines begin with the stress on the first syllable (trochee), some on the second (iamb). He makes much use of his favourite pararhyme (half rhyme): sun-sown, once-France, seeds-sides, star-stir, tall-toil, snow-now; which also helps to disturb the natural rhythm.
The problem Owen faces in FUTILITY is how to reconcile the miracle of creation with the evil of that creation laid waste, which intimates futility in two senses, first the futility behind the paradox of life made death, and second the futility of trying to find an answer. Where Owen stood at that time in relation to his practice as a Christian is impossible for us to know. At least the bitterness of ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH and DULCE ET DECORUM EST, in FUTILITY gives place to the pity that characterises his finest work, and manages, I think, to transcend the pessimism and the bleakness.
Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2000