This is a disorientating poem. It communicates a profound sadness and despair through its choice of language, images and sounds, all combining to produce an elegy for a loss that extends far beyond any one conflict or battle, hence the ambiguous epigraph, ‘incident in a future war.’
Perhaps it might be helpful to borrow Julia Kristeva’s phrase for deep sadness: ‘ an abyss of sorrow’ in her book on melancholia entitled, Black Sun. For this poem does communicate to me an overwhelming sense of this ‘abyss of sorrow.’ It s a sorrow that goes on and cannot be named or explained ‘away.’ This choice of emotional focus on this ‘abyss of sorrow’ is ironically explored through the female protagonist, Vaudevue, a name ostensibly suggestive of fun and community with its association with ‘vaudeville’ songs and shows. Of course this is an ironic name as this ‘Vaudevue’ is isolated, mentally traumatised and suicidal.
Unusually, as I have said, the poem has a named female soldier as its central character. Her desolation is both physical and mental and this is highlighted through the echoic internal rhyming of the repeated ‘alone’ with ‘stone.’ We are not far away from the bleak landscapes of Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. In both poems the isolation of the landscape is a reflection of the emotional states explored within the poem. (Poetic Fallacy)
I love the seemingly random observation that Vaudevue’s fingers ‘tap the ground.’ Is she physically remembering music she has mentally or consciously forgotten, so this movement s almost like an involuntary twitch or convulsion of remembrance? The famous neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks frequently describes the strange residue or left over behaviours of human beings whose brains have suffered damage that incapacitates normal, healthy responses. (See The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat) This description of Vaudevue does capture the final moments of a human being whose mental and physical capacities have been fatally damaged through conflict. This conflict has taken place on the site of another bloody battle, Austerlitz, and such a terrible repetition reveals that we learn nothing through history and suffering. It goes on, it comes back…
The chemical weaponry and reminders of Nazi Germany in stanza two, kill off her memory, so that she has become human detritus, a left over of war and her own identity is now merely physical; ‘she’ has to all purposes, died. Death itself is a mere appendix to her current situation. She tries ‘staggering’ to her only way out, her ownly future, the lake where she can cleanse herself and ironically rebirth herself through drowning.
The oddity of the adjective ‘adorable’ reminds us that this is an excessively brutal, inhuman situation. Psychologically we are in the company f someone dehumanised and violated, whose relief in death makes the lake ‘adorable’ just as a new born baby may be ‘adorable’. Linguistic signs are estranged from their meaning, as was and conflict have destroyed the meaning of the world and teh respect we might have once enjoyed for the sanctity of life.
The feminine moon is both her friend and her enemy/nemesis. Moonlight is synonymous with madness and female emotion, with its ebbs and flow. Sylvia Plath in both poems like Daddy andLady Lazarus, is close to her in the disturbing choice of Lexis with phrases such as ‘black as her mind’ and her minds as a ‘secret from her.’ This mental place or territory is way beyond any place we would wish to dwell or be. Conflict has torn apart her mental stability so that she has become unknown even to herself.She is now A divided self, that cannot be reconciled or made peaceful except through the release of death.
A wonderful poem and profoundly unsettling and sad. Probably the most challenging in the Conflict section of the AQA Anthology if not of the entire Anthology too.
Come on, come back by Stevie Smith( Extract)
(incident in a future war)
Left by the ebbing tide of battle
On the field of Austerlitz
The girl soldier Vaudevue sits
Her fingers tap the ground, she is alone
At midnight in the moonlight she is sitting alone on a round flat stone.
Graded by the Memel Conference first
Of all human exterminators
M L 5
Has left her just alive
Only her memory is dead for evermore.
She fears and cries, Ah me, why am I here?
Sitting alone on a round flat stone on a hummock there.
Rising, staggering, over the ground she goes
Over the seeming miles of rutted meadow
To the margin of a lake
The sand beneath her feet
Is cold and damp and firm to the waves’ beat.
Quickly – as a child, an idiot, as one without memory –
She strips her uniform off, strips, stands and lunges
Into the icy waters of the adorable lake.
On the surface of the water lies
A ribbon of white moonlight
The waters on either side of the moony track
Are black as her mind,
Her mind is as secret from her
As the water on which she swims,
As secret as profound as ominous.
The Woman in Black
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