Wilfred Owen's poetry usually describes the grotesque reality of the front-line of WWI; however, this poem concentrates on the meaning of existence, and the futility (pointlessness) of war and inevitability of death. The narrator of this poem is having an existential crisis; what is the point of being born if you are just going to die a few years later? It is common for people to question death and what comes after death, especially if that person is surrounded by death or on the verge of death themselves. Soldiers are faced with death every day, the death of their fellow soldiers and of their enemies; being surrounded by death on a daily basis can lead anyone to feel betrayed by life and life-givers. The anonymity of this poem allows it to universal; it can be describing any soldier. This poem also serves as an elegy, which is a song, poem, or speech that expresses grief for one who is dead, and it is usually melancholy in tone.
Move him into the sun- (line 1)
The poem begins with the narrator ordering that the man be moved into the sun; this leads us to believe that the narrator is of a high rank than the person he was talking to, someone of low rank would not be giving orders to someone who outranked him.
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown. (2- 3)
The sun is personified in this poem; the sun is described as gently touching the man, rousing him from sleep, which is a motherly thing to do. The sun woke the man briefly, and his last moments were filled with memories of his childhood on a farm. The sun whispers to him, which is another human quality. Fields half-sown has a dual meaning: first, fields are only partially seeded (it's the beginning of planting season); second, it is a metaphor for a life not fully lived. Many soldiers in WWI were barely eighteen years old, and hadn't even had the opportunity to experience life.
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. (5-7)
The sun had always roused him before, but this time was different. There is a contrasting of sensations: sun (warmth and life) and snow (cold and death). The man is unable to be revived, because the sun is being partially blocked by the snow. The "old sun" is the only thing that can save him now. The sun is once again personified by the narrator referring to it as "kind."
Think how it wakes the seeds-
Woke once the clays of a cold star. (8-9)
The sun is life-giving; it makes seeds and men grow. The sun is considered a dwarf star, whose temperature ranges from three thousand to ten thousand Kelvin (K). A massive star's (temperature is around 50,000 K. Therefore; a cold star could be referring to the sun, which has a comparatively cold in temperature. "Cold Star" is also an oxymoron; a star may vary in temperature, but they are not cold. I believe what the narrator is trying to say here is that like the seeds are given life, the sun was also given life.
Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall? (10-13)
"Limbs" has a twofold meaning: first, a limb is a branch of a tree, which fits in with the nature them; second, limbs are projecting paired appendages (legs, arms, or wings). The creation of nature and mankind is very delicate. The narrator doesn't understand how the sun can give life to seeds, but not a body that is still warm. "Clay" is mud, and comes from the Earth. "Clay grew tall" is referencing Genesis 2.7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground -- ;" so clay symbolizes man. The narrator is asking what the point of life if; why is man born just to die? Is life pointless?
-O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all? (13-14)
The idea that the sun can bring a dead man back to life is "fatuous" (foolish) and futile. Men enlisted because of some promise of heroism made by government propaganda, which convinced them that they needed to prove their bravery and nationalism by fighting for their country. Young men were exceptionally susceptible to such advertising; because they think that fighting in the war would them make them more attractive to women and earn the respect of their family and friends. The casualties of WWI were high; many boys didn't even get the opportunity to live or love. The narrator's final question is what made the sun give life to man at all if it was ultimately just going to take it away.
The Visualized Bible: King James Version. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1984.
Owen, Wilfred. "Futility." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8thed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1976.
"dwarf star." Encyclop¦dia Britannica. Encyclop¦dia Britannica Online. Encyclop¦dia Britannica, 2011. Web. 06 Aug. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174890/dwarf-star>.