Poem of the Day: ‘Futility’
Wilfred Owen’s poems constitute the output of a brief adulthood entirely consumed by the consciousness of war, in a generation of men who would be utterly devoured, as a demographic, by that war.
Born on March 18, in 1893, Wilfred Owen (d. 1918) has become one of the famous casualties of World War I. Killed in action at twenty-five, a week before the Armistice that ended the war, he seems to have been born to fulfill the bleak prophecies of his poems. These poems constitute the output of a brief adulthood entirely consumed by the consciousness of war, in a generation of men who would be utterly devoured, as a demographic, by that war. Owen published only five poems in his lifetime, with today’s Poem of the Day, “Futility,” one of them.
In this battlefield poem, a soldier lies dead at the feet of comrades who have won through the carnage, this time. Over the body, one of these survivors addresses the others. Each ababccc septet in this nameless soldier’s voice, with its middle five tetrameter lines couched between opening and closing lines in trimeter, meditates on a level of futility. First, there’s the futility of waking the dead, the futile hope that the sun, which had always awakened him before, will touch him to consciousness now. In the second stanza, the speaker’s sense of hopelessness expands to the level of existential despair. If this waste of life is the outcome of every sunrise, then what’s the point of the sun’s coming up at all?
by Wilfred Owen
Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
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?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.
Mr. Bottum is the author of eight books, including An Anxious Age and The Decline of the Novel. Director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University, he has written over 800 essays, poems, reviews, and short stories in publications from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. His poetry collections include The Fall & Other Poems and The Second Spring, and he has received a 2019 Christopher Medal for his poetry in the year’s best children’s book. He lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.