Come On, Come Back.

Come On, Come Back 

Stevie Smith 

(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.

Weeping bitterly for her ominous mind, her plight,
Up the river of white moonlight she swims
Until a treacherous undercurrent
Seizing her in an icy amorous embrace
Dives with her, swiftly severing
The waters which close above her head.

An enemy sentinel
Finding the abandoned clothes
Waits for the swimmer’s return
(‘Come on, come back’)
Waiting, whiling away the hour
Whittling a shepherd’s pipe from the hollow reeds.

In the chill light of dawn
Ring out the pipe’s wild notes
‘Come on, come back.’

In the swift and subtle current’s close embrace
Sleeps on, stirs not, hears not the familiar tune
Favourite of all the troops of all the armies
Favourite of Vaudevue
For she had sung it too
Marching to Austerlitz,
‘Come on, come back’.


At first glance, there are two things that are rummaging through my brain; firstly that any teacher who dares to go near this is nuts and lastly, why on earth has AQA added something as complex, even if it is good, as this to the syllabus when there are F tier students out there who will struggle with most prose, let alone this? The next thought is one that this teacher must be mad to have a go at this one, but here I am, having a go, so if it ends up as gibberish, consider I am typing these words at midnight.

This is a poem written in third person from the point of view of the poet, or in this case, the story teller, who tells her story about a young girl. In parenthesis [use of brackets] the reader is told this could be in a future war, not in a past one, so we are immediately expecting something different, or at least this published poet is.

If we take this verse by verse we see in the first verse, or stanza, that the young girl in question is called Vaudevue, an intriguingly odd sounding name and one that reminds me of the word Vaudeville but clearly not meant to be the same meaning. This girl then, is sitting after the field of battle has ended or paused, and “her fingers tap the ground.” Immediately the reader should ask the question, why would someone do such a thing? Is this meant to be taken literally or metaphorically? If literally then very odd indeed. The place in question is the “field of Austerlitz” so this is of a foreign climate to the British reader’s thoughts, as well as those of you who are from the far corners of the globe. So we are left to assume it is meant to be metaphorical, or symbolic of something else.

We find that “she is alone at midnight in the moonlight,” itself a very alliterative section of the poem and one meant to reflect the almost moonlight, romance of the scene. She is “sitting alone on a round flat stone.” Again the reader has to ask the question here – why the round, flat stone? What symbolism does this carry, if any? What else was round in the past or in folklore? Is there a link to the idea of something old passing through the portals of one dimension to another?

The answers are not forthcoming for now until we get to the next verse which begins with the idea that she is a remnant of something that fought there. Strange words that sound futuristic emerge as we see she has been “graded by the Memel Conference” or classified as being of minor importance any more by the “human exterminators” called “M L 5,” who have “left her just alive” or barely alive. The strange wording of “only her memory is dead for evermore” sounds almost too futuristic in a sense because the memory of someone is something that will last forever. We remember the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, or King James I or Queen Elizabeth and Historians gather information on them, so their memory is never dead, but in this battle that has happened so there is the sense that all can die. The girl feels the raw emotion of warfare and battle as she “fears and cries, Ah me, why am I here?” If there is ever such a comment as this that would sublimely describe the raw emotion of the eternal question of why we go to war, it is this one, as she is “sitting alone on a round flat stone on a hummock.”

But she is not beaten. No, she is defiant to the last as she rises, “staggering, over the ground” and she begins to trudge the meadows of the battle to emerge at the outer most parts of a lake, travelling from carnage to tranquillity as she goes. Now there is sand in her shoes or toes and she feels the rise and swell of the beach, blessed relief from what she has just endured. Suddenly she is in the opposite of the brutality she has endured so far and is now somewhere where there is peace and beauty. She is now able to act “as a child, an idiot, as one without memory” as she wanders off into the lake and the waters that engulf. It is an extraordinary image being painted here of someone who can see the horrors of war and then wander off from the battlefield and find somewhere where peace resides and if metaphorically understood, reflects the idea that this is about passing from earth to heaven, or indeed, wherever the afterlife takes us.

She “strips her uniform off,” itself symbolic or dropping the last vantage of warfare. A soldier wears a uniform in battle, so this removal is symbolic of her desire to seek peace over war and here we begin to see the poet’s attitude to warfare and conflict in some detail as she lets her heroine do the sorts of things she would want to do in the same situation, diving into the “icy waters of the adorable lake.” The description that follows is simply mesmerizing in its beauty as she describes how “on the surface of the water lies a ribbon of white moonlight.” Here, there is romance. Here there is love. Here there is the chance to live again as we are intended to and just as much as baptism is a rite of passage in the worldwide church so too could this watery entrance be her rite of passage as she dies and enters the waters of the afterlife.

The waters are described as being “on either side of the moony track” and as “black as her mind,” which leads the reader into thinking that perhaps this is a poem about the entry into the after life after all [pardon the pun there]. She is in a situation where her mind and her body could be said to have separated from each other, which is symbolic of death. Everything therefore, is described in “ominous” terms.

Then there is a change in tone again and one towards the negative, where we see something change in her. We see words like “weeping bitterly” and “treacherous undercurrent” as she swims the lake in the direction of freedom and as she does so, the lake and the waters are “seizing her in an icy amorous embrace” showing just how far on this journey she is. She has laboured in death, travelled to beauty and now is guided by some magical force to somewhere where there is peace but in order to do so, she has to let “the waters … close above her head.” Such words are again metaphorical in content and meant to make the reader think in terms of our journey from life through death and into whatever comes next. For this poet, this is her beautiful journey that she hopes will be hers when her day comes.

And just as she is on her journey of discovery, something happens to change the direction for the reader again. A guard finds her clothes and waits for her to return either thinking or saying those words “come on, come back!” When you think about it, why would you say those words? In what context might you say them? You might say them if someone is leaving and you do not want them to, or when someone is dying and you desperately want them to stay with you. The latter works better here, as with the earlier sentiments because of the words that follow describing the “chill light of dawn.” Everything is cold. Everything is dead or dying. So is Vaudevue as she passes from one plane to another, as the “close embrace” slowly ebbs away from her and she fails to hear the tune she knows so well, the tune that was sung in the battlefields before this day, the song that was called ‘Come on, come back.’