Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous and most widely read of all the British poets of World War I. He served in the war, saw its horrors up close, and ultimately was killed very shortly before the war ended. His poem titled “Futility” is typical of many of his lyrics about the war.
The poem's opening line is startling abrupt. Whom is the speaker addressing, and of whom is he speaking? Owen catches us off-guard, thereby making us pay close attention. Not until much later does it became absolutely clear that the man being discussed is dead. Only in line 4, in fact, is it clearly implied that he is a soldier who has served in France. At first he may be merely wounded, not dead, but by the second stanza that possibility has vanished.
The sun is associated with life and with warmth. When the now-dead soldier was at home, apparently in a bucolic landscape, the sun would awake him, “whispering of fields unsown” (3). Presumably he was a farmer who sowed fields and thus himself helped create new life. In any case, the language describing how the sun once “Gently” awoke the dead man seems itself gentle, especially thanks to the verb “whispering,” whose sound almost mimics the sound it describes. Indeed, all the “s” sounds in line 3 are soft and soothing. The sun could be depended upon, “even in France” (a place now associated with death and destruction), to awaken the man, “Until this morning and this snow” (5). Ironically, the man has died in the “morning,” a time associated with life and with the rising of the sun. Yet his death has taken place in wintertime, a season associated with death and with the absence of warmth. By twice using the word “this,” the speaker makes the man’s death seem all the more immediate. It is as if we are present with the speaker, seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels.
The speaker’s reflections about the dead man suggest the speaker’s own gentleness and kindness, especially when he says,
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know. (6-7)
He knows, of course, that any such hope is in reality futile (as the poem’s title suggests), but it is a sign of his affection for the dead man that the speaker seems almost unwilling to give up hope.
The second stanza in this lyric of 14 lines (a number of lines associated with the sonnet, a genre itself associated with love) is far less focused on the individual dead man than on human life in general. The tone here is literally thoughtful and meditative as the speaker encourages us (concerning the sun) to
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. (8-9)
Just as the dead man once sowed seeds, so the sun awakens such seeds into life. Adopting a scientific or Darwinian view of the origins of life, the speaker imagines the sun awakening life on earth, yet the reference to “clays” also reminds us of the Biblical account of the genesis of life. The reference to “a cold star” reminds us of the earlier reference to snow, just as the reference to “seeds” reminds us of the poem’s first few lines. The two stanzas, then, are subtly unified, not only through such images but also by the constant emphasis on awakening. Stanza 2 stresses the role of the sun in awakening life on our planet, but it ends by wondering whether it was worthwhile for the sun “To break earth’s sleep at all” (14), especially in view of the mess humans have made of the planet through constant killing in war.