Monday, 9 April 2012

'Come On, Come Back' by Stevie Smith

This poem is subtitled 'incident in a future war', and  briefly describes the fate of a young female soldier in that war. Alone and injured by a weapon which has left her physically unharmed but mentally scarred, she weeps on a battlefield. Seeing a lake, she undresses and dives into its waters in the middle of the night. An enemy soldier finds her clothes and whistles a popular song while he waits for her to surface, but unknown to him, she has been carried away by the current and drowned.

The poem picks up on several themes in which Smith was interested--most obviously, it resonates with her most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning, which briefly describes, in the voice of a dead man, how people did not realise that he was 'not waving but drowning'. As bystanders specilate about what caused him to drown, he protests that he was not 'larking about' but in fact waving for help. It concludes 'I was much too far out all my life, /And not waving but drowning'.

The theme of this poem--the accidental death misunderstood, and the loneliness of the individual--seems to connect quite stongly to the much longer poem 'Come On, Come Back'. The title of the latter is repeated throughout the poem at key points (like the phrase 'Not Waving But Drowning') and is supposed to be the title of a popular song sung by soldiers in the 'future war'. The song links together both sides, specifically linking together Vaudevue, the young solider, and the unnamed enemy who waits for her to return. There is no song called 'Come On Come Back' that I have been able to discover, but the title implies the conflict between urging someone to go to war (for whatever noble purpose), or urging them on in battle (come on), and wanting them to come back quickly. It is slightly reminiscent of the joke current in the Peninsular Wars of Wellington, that there were some officers known as 'come ones' and some as 'go ons'. In default of the real song, here's a clip of Big Country's anti-war song 'Come back to me'.

Vaudevue seems to be a name picked to resonate with the reader; despite its lack of specific association (it is not a common name), it resembles the word 'vaudeville' which is the name for a style of musical comedy, deriving from the French name of a type of popular song, and thus has connotations of pleasure and peace--perhaps Vaudevue is supposed to be a kind of pierrot figure. The etymology is disputed--one version says that it derives from the French 'voix de ville' meaning 'voice of the city' where another suggests it is connected to the Vau valley in Normandy.  Both versions, though suggest that the word originally derived from the word for a type of popular song, which seems significant, given the importance of a popular song in the poem. the change from 'ville' to 'vue' has connotations with 'view' as in 'looking'--is Vaudevue an actor in the war who is now reduced to being a passive spectator?

It is worth noting that at the time of writing, the idea of a girl soldier (implicitly a child) would have seemed much more shocking and futuristic than it does now. This futuristic edge to the poem is emphasised not only by the subtitle, but by the reference to 'the field of Austerlitz', Austerlitz being the site of one of Napoleon's greatest battles. Instead of being an active warrior, though, Vaudevue is simply 'left' by the battle, which has implicitly passed beyond her. The end-rhyme 'Austerlitz/sits' emphasises her passivity, as does the following couplet 'alone/stone'. The alliteration and internal rhyme of 'midnight in the moonlight' emphasises how the repeated 'alone' creaes a 'dead' internal rhyme as well as an end-rhyme. The image in this first stanza is almost a romantic one.

The second stanza starts more brutally. The Memel conference is an imaginary conference in a real place--a city now in Lithuania that was annexed by different countries in WW2. The use of 'graded' and 'exterminators' creates a clinical feel--the weapon ML5 is clearly intended to be something futuristic and somehow more horrible for its lack of traditional bloody results. Vaudevue (perhaps the only survivor of the battle?) is left 'just alive' but without memory. So lost is she that she 'fears and cries Ah me why am I here?', the lack of speech marks here emphasising how we are seeing into Vaudevue's thoughts in a form of free indirect speech.The repetition of 'sitting alone on a round flat stone' emphasises how she is static, the rhyme 'here/there' reinforcing this idea of stillness and inactivity. Her loss of memory, as the third stanza makes clear, has reduced her to the status of 'a child, an idiot'.

Vaudevue's activity in the third stanza thus initially appears to be a positive thing--though the nightmarish travel 'over the seeming miles of rutted meadow' suggest how the peaceful land has been damaged, 'rutted', by the battle, and also emphasises her loneliness. The normality of 'the sand beneath her feet...firm' seems a healing thing in comparison, and we can readily understand why the lake, though 'cold...damp...icy' might seem 'adorable' in comparison with the battlefield. Her dive into the lake becomes something both adventurous and beautiful, emphasised by the metaphor of the 'ribbon of white moonlight' that might remind us of poems such as Alfred Noyes's 'The Highwayman' where the line 'the moon was a ribbon of moonlight/over the purple moor' has connotations of romance, adventure and tragedy. The metaphor is matched by a progression of similes that builds up to a final climax: 'black as her secret from her / as the water', 'as secret as profound as ominous'.

The fifth stanza is linked to the fourth by the repeat of 'ominous', its first line reiterating Vaudevue's 'plight'. She swims, apparently without motivation other than to travel in the 'river of white moonlight' which seems to represent a symbolic light in that it is not the black of her mind. The personification of the 'swift and subtle' drowning undercurrent that 'dives with her' with an 'icy-amorous embrace' makes it seem almost as though she has been rescued by a lover, and the following stanzas reflect the ways in which she has indeed been rescued by its 'close embrace', though the words 'treacherous',and  'seizing' here  foreshadow the darker end of the poem.

The 'enemy sentinel' who discovers Vaudevue's clothes in stanza 6 waits for her, something which might be seen as threatening were he not described as 'whittling a shepherd's pipe...whiling away the hours'. This peaceful activity makes him seem unthreatening, despite his enemy status, something suggested also by the refrain of the song, here heard for the first time, which makes him sound like a lover yearning for the return of his beloved. As he finishes making the pipe, he whistles out the notes of the tune and they become an imperative summons to Vaudevue, almost a promise of a happy ending, given that the song is 'favourite of Vaudevue' and 'favourite of all the troops', implying a sympathy even between enemies.

The final stanza describes how Vaudevue--whose fate was uncertain earlier--is 'asleep' in the lake. The image of her drowning is peaceful, she 'sleeps on, stirs not' in the 'embrace' of the current--the implication being that she is now safe from the distress she experienced earlier in the poem. Her failure to recognise the song is, of course, because she is dead--but also because she has lost her memory--here death is seen to be almost kinder than the kind of weapon that could destroy someone's mind. This final line 'Come on, come back' now has a deeper resonance, as an epitaph for the young soldier.

Imagery of water is strong throughout the poem. At the start, Vaudevue is described as being 'left by the ebbing tide of battle', and her mind, which has been wiped of memory, is described as black as the waters of the moonlit lake. Her plunge into the waters of this lake is clearly symbolic as well as actual, with the direct comparison 'her mind is as secret from her / As the water on which she swims'. The refrain of the song is presented as poignant--there are, it is implied, many ways in which people can be lost through warfare, not all of them obvious. In some ways, then, Vaudevue stands for all vulnerable victims damaged by war--and also for all soldiers wounded in ways beyond the obvious.

You can find out more about Smith's life and work at The Poetry Archive, which also has a recording of her reading some of her poems.

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