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Wilfred Owen


Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poem, like so much of Wilfred Owen's poetry, reflects on the futility of war and emphasises the emotions of loss and remembrance.

The poem focuses on a soldier who is in shock and denial -- he cannot believe that his friend is dead. He believes the sun, with all its restorative powers, should be able to resuscitate his friend.


Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire to a family of committed Christians. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical College.

He wanted to become a teacher but his father could not afford the university fees. Instead, therefore, he journeyed to France in 1913 where he worked as a tutor. He also wrote occasional poetry, none of which is particularly known.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Owen maintained a vague interest in events through cuttings from newspapers sent by his mother with whom he had a close relationship. Eventually, however, the pressure of propaganda reached him and, in October 1915, he returned to England and enlisted. He was then 22 years of age.

The poet spent a year in training. Letters to his mother reveal that he enjoyed the prestige of wearing the military uniform. His training finished at the end of 1916 whereupon he joined the 2nd Manchesters in France where he took command of No. 3 Platoon.

His enthusiasm initially abounded but soon he was sent to the frontline and witnessed firsthand the awfulness of warfare -- living in trenches which were forever knee-deep in mud and water, the rotting corpses of soldiers, the dreadful war injuries.

"I have suffered seventh hell," he wrote to his mother. "I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it . . . to where the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water . . . "

Initially Owen's character and temperament did not suit his being a soldier. He was a scholar and a poet -- introverted and sensitive. Moreover, he was a committed Christian whose ideals were opposed to warfare in any form. It was during this period that he appears to have penned most of his anti-war poems.

The war forced him to face a conflict between his Christian beliefs and his role as a soldier. "I am more and more a Christian," he wrote to his mother in May 1917. "Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill."

Late in 1917 Owen received a serious injury and was sent home, suffering from shell-shock. While recuperating in the military hospital, he fell under the influence of the anti-war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who aided him in polishing his war poetry.

Yet Owen appears to have had a distinct dislike for pacifists and did not want to be identified with them. Indeed, he felt that his poetry could have a far deeper impact if emanating from a soldier in the trenches.

For that reason, therefore, he re-enlisted for the army and, in October 1918, he rejoined his company in France. This time, however, he appears to have identified himself with the soldiers and took tremendous risks in battle.

During one encounter, he captured a German machine gun and used it to decimate a host of enemy soldiers, for which deed he won the Victoria Cross. Although he denied it in letters to his mother, he appears now to have become a killing machine.

In early November, just one week before the armistice which ended the war, he supervised the construction of a bridge to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal. Wave after wave of his own men were massacred in the attempt. Wilfred Owen too fell in a flurry of machine gun bullets.

He was buried in a small British cemetery in northern France. He was then just 25 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Examine the structure of the poem and explain whether or not it is a sonnet. (4)

[Need help?]

Owen has decided on the title "Futility". Account for his choice of title. (3)

[Need help?]

"Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France."
  • Identify the figure of speech and quote another example of its usage from the first four lines of the poem. (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why does Owen feel the need to specify "even in France" ? (3)

[Need help?]

  • Account for the choice and position of the word "Always". (4)

[Need help?]

"Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, -- still warm, -- too hard to stir?"
  • What do the words "dear-achieved" mean? (2)

[Need help?]

  • For what reason does he describe the body as "Full-nerved"? (3)

[Need help?]

"Until this morning and this snow."
  • To what does the word "this" refer? (2)

[Need help?]

"-- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?"
  • The poet has decided to use a rhetorical question to end the poem. Explain his reason for doing so. (3)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet's use of the word "fatuous" emphasise? (3)

[Need help?]

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