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?
Wilfred Owen, May 1918
Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest poet of the First World War, was killed in action, aged 25, on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration. He is buried at Ors Cemetery in Northern France.
Owen said of his work, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Futility tells of the vain hope that a young man killed in battle is only sleeping, and will wake if he feels the sun on his face. The reference to “fields unsown” hints at his former life as a farmer, as well as the life which will now remain unlived. The experience of Owen’s soldier who left his farm and died in the fields of France became connected in our minds with the stories of the men who left the land they worked at Morden Hall Park and farm for the horror of the battlefield, and so Owen’s phrase “fields unsown” became the title for our project.
Written in May 1918, Futility was a part of the legacy of Owen’s recovery at Craiglockhart. Part of the treatment Owen received at Craiglockhart was that of expressive therapy – he was advised to work through his experiences in the form of poetry, with guidance from Siegfried Sassoon and the circle of creatives in and around Edinburgh.