Tuesday, November 8, 2016

To the Survivors

"The Homecoming": Cambridge war memorial
At 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the weary, mud-stained soldiers of the Great War put down their weapons. After 1,568 days, the conflict that some had thought might never end finally drew to a close.  Armistice Day (now more commonly known as Remembrance Day) somberly honors the dead of the war, but that first Armistice Day was an occasion for celebration. 

Siegfried Sassoon in “Everyone Sang” writes of the delight and beauty that “came like the setting sun” as “horror/Drifted away.” In Carola Oman’s quietly joyful poem “To the Survivors,” we feel the collective sense of wonder: the war is over, and the journey home has perhaps never been so tenderly imagined.

To the Survivors

They are all given back to you—
Midsummer Warwick woods, at night;
The still
Vision of Sherborne from the hill
Under a sudden rainbow; flight
Of virgin winds above the faithful downs;
The towns
Of Yorkshire; docks that breathe
Old witcheries with smoke and copper dusk;
And morning mists that wreathe
The pale
Towers of Canterbury; and the husk
Of ruined Porchester; the vale
Of Gloucester; Cotswold walls
Loose-stoned and low; waterfalls
Of north Devon; all the patched
Wonder of field and casual pool, and thatched
Unventilated cottages. By us
Four years avoided, ransomed now, again
(And four times richer thus)
They come; and all this pain
Is past.  Can you believe it true?
They are all given back again to you.
                        --Carola Oman*
(Oxford Magazine, December 1918)

The English landscape that featured so largely in the imagination of the trench poets** is lovingly listed in all its variety in Oman's poem: mysterious nights in Warwickshire’s woods and rainbows shining over the market town of Sherborne; smoky city docks and the waterfalls of the West Country; Canterbury’s holy towers and the loose-stoned walls of the Cotswold fields; the medieval ruins of Porchester Castle and humble thatched cottages: “They are all given back to you.”

Oman’s “To the Survivors” promises that everything has been preserved just as it was in the halcyon summer of 1914, and the poem imagines the returning soldiers stepping right back into that golden past (Carol Anne Duffy shares a similar vision in her poem “Last Post”). Like captives who have been ransomed, the memory and ideal of home have been returned to those who missed them so dearly, “and all this pain/Is past.”

The poem’s mood is fantastically optimistic (as is Sassoon’s poem with its closing line “the singing will never be done”).  It avoids mention of the wounded who will return with scars both visible and unseen, and the magical thinking of Oman’s poem is  altogether silent about the dead who will never return home. 

But this is a poem for the survivors, and it seems only right to allow them this one moment of pure, unadulterated joy. Sometimes incredible and improbable visions are needed, for they may show the way forward to peace and give perspective to the sufferings of the past.

*See also Carola Oman’s poem “In the Ypres Sector.”
**Other examples of war poems that reference the landscape of home include Gibson’s “Retreat,” Oxland’s “Outward Bound,” Lett’s “July, 1916,” and Ledwidge’s “Home.”


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