Summary and Analysis of Futility – Owen’s poetic epitaph

Analysis

The poem is written in the form of an elegiac lyric and it first appeared in 1918 in the Nation. It one of Owen’s final poems, continues the author’s quest to criticise the war, but, more importantly, it is an existential contemplation of life and can be seen as “his own unplanned tragic epitaph”. It is written in the form of an elegy for an unnamed soldier who passed away on the battlefield:

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. (ll. 1‒7)

Owen’s use of language in this stanza evokes a mood of serenity, especially if compared to his cacophonous representations of the battlefield in, for instance, Anthem For Doomed Youth. The sun once woke the soldier with a gentle “touch”, it “whispered of fields unsown” even during battle, giving a sense of hope and beauty in complete contrast to the devastated surroundings. It is “kind” and “old”, unaffected by the futility that is characteristic of human life – nature is a passive, everlasting witness of the destruction wrought by mankind.

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? (ll. 8‒12)

Owen, returning to his Romantic roots, admires the power of nature, the power of the sun. If even a cold star can be turned into a planet teeming with life, then why is humanity incapable of restoring the life of one man – a task seemingly effortless and minor in proportion. Though the man was alive moments ago, his “[…] sides, / Full-nerved, –still warm […]”, all that remains is his corpse. The poet feels powerless and insignificant in the face of death, yet he desperately tries to conceive a means of reinstating life into the man’s body. Finally, Owen conveys his grief by asking – “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”. He cannot comprehend how human life, something so “deer-achieved” and unique, is not worth saving; how it can run its course and then turn to nothing so suddenly after reaching its peak. He is also expressing his anger at the war with newfound fervour – is this pointless slaughter, this “foul tornado,” to quote Owen’s imagery from 1914, all humanity can achieve after centuries of progress?

The poem ends with the following couplet: “– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?”. Owen seems to be questioning the need for human life – what is the point in leading such a paradoxical existence where life invariably leads to death? He is unable to reconcile the wondrous nature of life with the complete despair that accompanies its conclusion, which man often imposes upon himself. The poet was killed in action on the 4th of November 1918 and posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his leadership and bravery. Futility, his final testament, seems to conclude that human existence is sometimes merciless and futile, but also exceedingly precious. Although at times bitter and highly critical, the most mature characteristic of Owen’s poetry is its pity. This message, simultaneously hopeful and bleak, is key to understating the multi-faceted growth of his poetry.

Summary

“Futility” is one among the published poems during Owen’s life time. In this poem like many of his other poems Owen talks about the ‘futility’ of war that has crippled the lives of young soldiers who are succumbed by the War’s force. The poem is about the fading hopes of soldiers who struggle to live.

The first stanza, very poignantly describes how a deceased soldier is moved to the sun with the hope that the gentle rays of the sun will revive his consciousness. The speaker by the line “whispering of fields half-sown” suggests that the soldier whose life is curtailed by the War is young and it is eagerly wished that the sun, which is a life-giver, will once again bring the dead soldier to life because half of his life experiences are yet to be received. It was always the sun that somehow wakes him up while he was at home or in France. However, the speaker mentioned that even the sun could not bring life into him on this snowy morning. Even though the speaker tried to bring in the image of light through the sun, yet the first stanza ends in a state of despair for the soldier is dead. The soldier who has fought in the war and died there was not prepared to die; he joined the war with the hope of securing his home, his nation.

The second stanza depicts a change in tone of the speaker who takes on a questioning attitude regarding life. The sun and the soil that lead to the growth of seeds is suggestive of how despite the soldier’s death, life has to go on. It signifies the paradox of life and death; while the sun and the soil gives light and life on the one hand, it is disturbing for the speaker to acknowledge that: “what made fatuous sunbeams toil/To break earth’s sleep at all?” The speaker again refers to hope that is futile; even when the soldier is buried, as the seeds in the soil, he cannot be brought back to life.

The sun is personified when it is referred to as ‘kind’ and ‘old’ signifying the age old belief on the sun as a protector of life. Owen’s reference to light can be understood in terms of his religious inclination also. By light, he projects God, the life giver. Even the warmth of the sun lay futile when it falls on the dead. Thus, the title can also be seen in the light of the inability to comprehend the mysteries of life and death and how Nature is a witness to both. This poem, in a way, projects the growing religious crisis in Owen. If the sun, symbolising God has created man then why is He silently witnessing the end of mankind. Indeed, the seriousness of the poem is reflected in the last two lines in which the speaker is clueless as to the notion of life and death. Therefore, it is only silence that pervades in the ending of the poem.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Owen’s earliest works, inspired by Romantic and later Decadent poetry, had a substantial impact on his writing style and poetic sensibility.

Additionally, it is clear that many motifs (e.g. horrific faces) characteristic of Owen’s war poetry emerged before his first experience of combat. Despite the war being a primary source of inspiration, many of Owen’s influences had already been firmly established long before the armed conflict ensued. As regards Owen’s mature poetry; his war experience led to the most profound alterations in his compositions. However, his past influences are still visible in many works. The poet’s quest to contradict pro-war propaganda led to horrific, matter-of-fact depictions of the battlefield, which, combined with the author’s poetic imagery, function as a compelling medium for conveying the harsh realities of war. Finally, the combination of profound humanity and existential despair featured in one of Owen’s final works, Futility, is key to understating the multi-faceted growth of his life.

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