Futility was one of many war poems written by Wilfred Owen, a British Army officer during the First World War. Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, one week before the end of the war, still in his twenties.
Note the beautiful use of half-rhyme (sun/unsown, once/France, star/stir) to create a sense of despair and frustration. For example, after 'sun', we expect a word like 'fun' or 'undone' that would rhyme. Instead, we get 'unsown', which does not rhyme correctly. It only half-rhymes, thus creating a feeling of frustration and sadness.
|Move him into the sun -||Move his body into the warmth of the sunlight -||We can imagine a soldier who has just been hit by a bullet. He is not moving. Perhaps he is dead. The weather is cold. It has been snowing. The soldier needs warmth, but he is in the shadow. Somebody suggests moving him to an area where the sun is shining.|
|Gently its touch awoke him once,||In the past, the touch of the sun used to wake him up gently,||The sun wakes everything.
What other fields is Owen talking about?
|At home, whispering of fields unsown.||when he was at home (in England). The sun spoke to him of fields that had not been planted with seeds.|
|Always it woke him, even in France,||The sun always used to wake him up, even here in France,||Although the sun woke this soldier in the past, today it is not waking him.|
|Until this morning and this snow.||until now and until this snow.|
|If anything might rouse him now||If anything is able to wake him from his sleep now,||But the sun is the only thing that can possibly wake him.|
|The kind old sun will know.||the sun can do it.|
|Think how it wakes the seeds, -||Imagine! Think how the sun wakes the seeds (in the fields?).||The sun is the source of life.|
|Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.||Think how it woke the soil of the Earth.|
|Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,||Is a body, created at so high a price,||Despair. Surely, it is not so difficult to wake a body that is still warm, that has all its nerves, its limbs.|
|Full-nerved,- still warm,- too hard to stir?||and which is still warm and full of nerves, too difficult to wake?|
|Was it for this the clay grew tall?||Is this why the soil was transformed into life?||Irony. Why did the sun create life? It was pointless, useless, futile. And it is futile to move the soldier. He is dead. He will never wake again. Futility in both senses.|
|- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil||Oh! Why did the purposeless beams of the sun work hard|
|To break earth's sleep at all?||to wake the earth in the first place?|
unsown (adjective): without seed; not planted
rouse (verb): wake up; stimulate; animate
clay (noun): type of earth; earth; soil
limb (noun): member of the body (leg, arm)
dear-achieved (adjective): costly to create
stir (verb): move; waken
fatuous (adjective): purposeless
toil (verb): work hard; labour