Sunday, 17 March 2013

Wilfred Owen's Futility


   The poet Wilfred Owen was born on 18th March 1893. He died on 4th November 1918.

The Great War, as it is called, officially ended with an armistice on 11th November 1918.

The great thing about the Great War was the number of people killed in it. The figure is ten million.

The number ten million was clearly not great enough so there had to be, just 21 years after the end of the Great War,  an even greater war in which the death toll would be 5 or 6 times greater than it was in the original Great War.

Wilfred Owen was a poet of the Great War. The original Great War that is. He didn't live long enough to report on the subsequent even greater war which was in effect merely a continuation of the original Great War. He was killed in France in the last week of the original Great War. He was aged 24.

In the preface to the collection of poems that included Futility, he wrote:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. 
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. 
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. 
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity. 
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful. 


Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
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?

Owen died in an assault over the Sambre and Oise canal, near Cambrai in north-east France. His biographer Jon Stallworthy writes:

". . . he was at the water's edge, giving a hand with some duckboards, when he was hit and killed. In Shrewsbury, the Armistice bells were ringing when the Owen's front door bell sounded its small chime, heralding the telegram . . ."


  1. An appropriate day to remember Wilfred Owen. It has always struck me as unbearably poignant that his mother received the news of his death as the bells were ringing out to signal that the war had ended. It must also have been a terrible shock for Siegfried Sassoon who didn't learn the news until some time later.

  2. Hi Caroline. It's a funny thing but I've just discovered that I have a sort of loose connection to Wilfred Owen as I played rugby in the 1960's against Owen's school which was at the Birkenhead Institute. And that thread reminds me that I also played rugby against Rugby School where a young Salman Rushdie, who is about the same age as me, watched us coming off the field.

  3. Of course you may not be interested in rugby but with a name like Davies you might well be, especially with Wales winning the championships on Sunday just gone.

  4. Definitely interested in rugby Gwilym - it was a great match on Saturday.

  5. They'll be singing in the Valleys!


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