Wilfred Owen is best known for poetry he wrote based upon his experiences in Europe, particularly France, during World War I. "Futility" is one such poem, and as the title suggests, the speaker contemplates his predicament with little hope.
"Futility" is initially about the speaker's companion. We can infer that he is a fellow soldier who has been wounded in battle. Much like Shakespeare in works such as Macbeth, Owen reflects on the theme of a disruption of order, when the universe is out of joint—its power diminished by the actions of mankind. In this case, the sun has lost its power.
In reading about Owen's experiences on the battlefield (which are quite similar to accounts of winter war in War World II in Elie Wiesel's Night), weapons were not the only things that took their toll upon human life. Owen spent many hours—even days—exposed to freezing water and temperatures, without proper food or clothing. In this poem, Owen addresses the power of the sun to revive (such as it does with things dead that are reborn in spring) and the quiet danger of the snow.
The first stanza provides a suggestion for the wounded man:
Move him into the sun—
At this point the speaker has some small hope that the sun might revive his comrade. For the man seriously wounded and cold, the speaker looks to the sun for help.
Owen describes the power the sun once had when the soldier was at home during better days, when he woke "gently" to the sun on lovely spring days when the fields had not yet been completely sown. "Whispering" may well draw a direct contrast to the constant shelling Owen and others were exposed to at close range—day and night—for days on end, and the quiet of the English countryside during planting season.
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
The speaker notes that the sun has always been faithful in waking the injured man—even under the terrible conditions they were exposed to in France.
Always it woke him, even in France...
Owen's personal experiences illuminated for him the realities of war compared to society's popular—and, he believed, mistaken—concept that there was something glorious about serving on the battlefield. According to the Poetry Foundation,
Owen said [his] poetry...would express “the pity of War,” rather than the “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power,” which war had acquired in the popular mind.
The public's naive assessment of war and its unwillingness to provide aid to the troops was deeply frustrating to Owen.
With the next two lines, the speaker introduces a stark contrast to that spring in England, which is a pivotal shift in the poem. The idyllic days that once woke the soldier have been replaced by snow—deadly to an injured man in this war. The word "until" infers that what once was, is no more:
Until this morning and this snow.
The reader may sense the growing sense of futility in the speaker as he sees that the only hope for the soldier—if hope can be found anywhere—would come from the sun, warming him as it once did. However, the sun is described not in terms of blazing power, but more like a gentle old man—"the kind old sun..."
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
In the second stanza, Owen refers to the world's dependence upon and history with the sun. It brought life to the planet ("clays of a cold star"), causing plants to grow, and beings to exist on what would otherwise (without the sun) be frozen and barren.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
If the sun can do these things, could it not also have the power to revive his companion?
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Isn't a human being so worthwhile ("dear-achieved") that the sun should bring life to it now as it did "in the beginning"? For all of the years that the sun has worked its miracles on the surface of the planet, how could war, destruction and death exist? Was the glorious creation of the world simply completed only to arrive at this horrible time?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
The final two lines of the stanza provide the reader with the sense that all the sun's work has been for nothing, if war and death are the end result. How foolish and thoughtless the "sunbeams" to even bring the world into existence in the first place.
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
The speaker's sense of frustration and futility are clearly pronounced to the reader. What is the point of life at all under these circumstances?
If the wounded man is still warm and "full-nerved," we can infer that if the sun has no power to rouse him, that he must be newly dead. The speaker hoped the sun could do what it had done in the past, but must now realize it is not possible.
...this [poem] does not doubt that spring will come to warm the frozen battlefield, but he wonders why it should. Even the vital force of the universe—the sun’s energy—no longer nurtures life.
"Futility" refers to the pointless and empty hope found not only for this fatally wounded soldier, but also for a world where war is glorified, where people at home complacently go about their days in blissful ignorance, and brave soldiers give their lives (as Owen sees it) for a lie.