Wilfred Owen’s “Futility” appeared in “The Nation” on 15th June 1918. Just as in his poem “Frustration”, Wilfred Owen talks “of the grievances of a wounded man who they move into the sun, in some hope that it will ‘stir’ him”. The poet begins the poem talking of a certain “Him’ It is obvious that the poet is talking about the Soldier. The anonymity points to his relegation of identity; and lack of individuality in a system that places the System over the individual. The anonymity of the dead soldier may also be employed for objectivity, and to render the experience universal-so as to point to the predicament of any soldier. The poem functions as an elegy for the dead soldier. The sun stands as a metaphor for the Giver of Life here. Once, the poet asserts, the sun’s touch did awaken the man in question. Once upon a time, he was ‘at home’. “At home” signifies that the man was comfortable and satisfied. The phrase “whispering of fields unsown.” suggests the possibility of fields yet to be sown, dreams yet to be realized.
The sun always awoke him, until this day. This suggests the likelihood that he is not anymore in a condition to be awakened by the sun. ‘Snow’ stands as a powerful emblem of death, decay and destruction. It is as opposed to the warmth of the sun. Only the Old Sun (the Perpetuator of life) can discern if anything is capable of rousing the man to his senses. The line echoes the fact that no one who had crossed in to the realm of death, has been back to tell the tale of Death. The lines also point to the inevitability of Death, and hollowness of life. Hence, the title “Futility”. The term ’futility’ also foregrounds the pointlessness of war. Moreover, it refers to the futility of extinction.
From the descriptive mode in the first stanza, the poet shifts to an interrogative and philosophical mode in the second. The poet is in total denial over the death of his fellow-being. The Sun was capable of waking vegetative entities like seeds, and the hard “clays of a cold stars”. While it refreshed lifeless stars, why was it the incapable of endowing life to a rational being whose significance cannot be understated? The poet is also aware of Nature’s overwhelming powers that Man-made inventions cannot withstand (floods,tsunamis,earthquake)Why cannot Nature then revive the aftermath of a man-made atrocity such as war.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved, – still warm, – too hard to stir?
The rhetorical question is aimed not only at the Sun, the Sustainer of Life. It is also intended at the devastating concept of war in general. Owen took part in World War I as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. Therefore he bore witness to the catastrophic effects of war. He was depressed and disgusted at the distressing and demoralizing consequences of the War. He endeavoured to fulfill the responsibilities to his country. In such a context, his poetry had a therapeutic effect on him, a release for the mixed emotions he was stifled with.
Was for this that the clay grew tall? Did Man advance in Life and progressiveness to come to this? As the poet prefixes the adjective “fatuous” before sunbeams, he illustrates how the sun had lost its utility value in the face of Death. Was it for this eventual finale that the sun awoke the earthlings?
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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