Futility - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Futility

The sun personified

The key image is the sun. Owen personifies the sun in the first stanza as ‘kind’, a human characteristic given to an inanimate object whose warmth brings benefit The sun is also described as ‘old’. Whilst scientifically true, the adjective has human connotations when juxtaposed with ‘kind’, almost asking to be made into the phrase ‘kind old man’ or woman or person. Thus sun is a positive force and its action is all about bringing to life the soldier as it does the seeds. Words such as ‘Move him’, ‘gently’, ‘whispering’ and ‘rouse’ all suggest a soft, even motherly force that gently whispers rather than commands. In the final line the sun is said to know what is best for his/her children, reinforcing the image of a loving parent.

In the second stanza the sun is associated with the whole act of creation and generation. Seen almost as a divine entity (countless cultures have believed in a sun god), the sun ‘wakes’ the planet and its seeds into life and vigour. However, this sun clearly does not accord with the traditional attributes of the Christian God, who the Bible states is able to give and take life, as well as restore life after death. In a relatively short poem, there are seven references to the act of waking / getting up (l.2,4,6,8,9,11,14) and Owen may have been thinking of a well-known New Testament verse:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Ephesians 5:14

But the sun cannot do what Owen desires, cannot bring the dead to life. And so he decries its ‘fatuous sunbeams’ l.13. It is as if the sun isn’t trying hard enough, is unfeeling and careless. Instead of symbolizing life, it comes to represent the meaninglessness of life.

Other natural images

Owen illustrates his poem with other images from nature. ‘The fields unsown’ l.3 represent the man’s potential, not yet fulfilled. The ‘seeds’ which the sun wakens represent life itself l.8. These seeds should have grown into corn to feed life - as the soldiers ought to become the men of the future. Owen uses the same metaphor in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young where:

The old man slew his son
And half the seed of Europe one by one l.13-14

The harsh coldness of ‘this snow’ l.5 can be read as a symbol of death, which came ‘this morning’, its whiteness perhaps echoing the pallor of the corpse.

In the powerful line: ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ l.12, Owen uses ‘clay’ as an impartial metaphor for the young man’s body. In the Bible, clay or earth is a symbol of God-given life but also of mortality. See Earth, clay, dust. As the well-known lines from the Anglican funeral service put it: 

we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;

(These words build on verses about the brevity of human life also used within the burial service - see Psalms 103:13-16). In his anger Owen takes this image literally, reducing what had been a warm living body to what it has become: cold clay.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Futility

  • The sun, the snow and the ploughed fields of England are the main images in the poem. Make a spider diagram with the sun written or drawn as the centre and identify all the words and phrase which belong to that image.
    • Do the same for the snow and the fields.
    • Identify similar images that Owen uses in other poems and add them to your diagram. This will make a useful revision sheet.

Themes in Futility

Owen is angry at the waste of life. His passionate response to the inability of the sun to rouse the soldier spills over into questioning the meaning of life itself. The fact that the sun, the giver of life and light, is incapable of bringing life back to what was once a warm, strong body makes Owen question its power. The waste of the limbs - with its obvious connection to the injuries inflicted by war – which are ‘so dear achieved’ l.10, seems pointless. So the paradox of life and death is also a theme. If we look at the image of the sun as an image of God, then we see in this poem the death of Owen’s beliefs. 

Futility is an anti-war poem, powerfully evoking the pity of war with its anger and simultaneous tenderness to those who suffer.

Investigating themes in Futility

  • The futility of war and of life itself is the main theme of the poem. How does this bleak theme link with Owen’s other theme, the pity of war?
    • Write about the way in which Owen links pity and futility in this poem.
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