The poetry of the First World War is always compelling in that it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and confront the harsh reality of utterly futile death, as expressed so painfully and powerfully in Wilfred Owen’s “Futility”
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
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?
Written the year in which Wilfred Owen was himself swallowed up by the futility he describes, this poem presents war death as a tragic rent in the fabric of the whole of creation: what was the point of the millions of years of evolution from clay to human life if life is treated with this kind of callous disregard. Owen was “killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.“ In the context of Owen’s own letters to his mother this must have been an utterly heart-wrenching moment for all concerned. This is the letter he wrote just a few days before his death:
So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells.
I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround us here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines…
Blog Topics for this week:
1/ Describe in your own words how reading and hearing the poets of the first world war has made you feel about war.
2/ Write a letter to either Siegried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen thanking them for the courage they showed in writing with such immediacy about the war. Tell them how it has opened up your understanding to hear of war spoken of so openly
3/ Create a mini-digital kit with some of the best annotated resources for understanding the poetry of this war.
4/ Write a brief response to Charlie Chaplin’s plea for peace in world gone mad.
5/ Create your own topic relating to this theme. Maybe you have relatives how can share stories of relevance to you on this subject.