Come on, come back – information, ideas and understanding it


‘Austerlitz’: the poet imagines a future battle on an old battleground. Austerlitz is now in the Czech Republic, but in 1805 it was in Austria. It was here that Napoleon and his French troops defeated the armies of Russia and Austria..
‘Memel’: the German name for a coastal town in Lithuania. Stevie Smith imagines it as the location of a Conference assessing methods of exterminating human beings. Memel came under German rule after the Napoleonic Wars, but was reclaimed by Lithuania when the Memel Statute was signed by 4 countries, including Britain, in 1923. Nazism became popular in Memel and anti-Semitism grew; when the Nazis were elected to govern it in 1938 the Jewish population began a mass exodus. Lithuania handed Memel back to Germany without resistance.
‘M L 5’: a made-up name for a chemical
‘hummock’: little hill
‘idiot’: someone with a severe learning disability (a word no longer used in this sense)
‘lunges’: suddenly throws herself forward. One of the characteristics of Stevie Smith’s poetry is an unexpected choice of words – such as ‘adorable’ in the next line.


Stevie Smith’s war is both ancient and modern: she evokes images from the Napoleonic age, but also the modern world in which chemicals are used to harm or kill people. Her poem was written in the 1950s, and she will have known all about such things as Zyklon-B, the gas used on the Jews in Nazi death camps.

Into this invented (and futuristic) background Stevie Smith introduces two characters: the war-damaged, tortured girl deprived of her memory and therefore her identity, and the pipe-playing (and for us not at all fiendish) enemy watchman. The short, sad drama creates a powerful poem of terror, despair and loss. The imagined song, ‘Come on, come back’ (words which have links with each stage of the drama), suggests one of those sad and haunting tunes (‘Lili Marlene’? ‘The Londonderry Air’? ‘September Song’?) which everyone knows and everyone shares – including ‘all the troops of all the armies’, many of whom will never ‘come back’.

Another issue that this poem raises is whether or not women should fight as soldiers. In civil and guerrilla wars woman have joined the men in combat, and in invaded countries women have sometimes committed acts of violence. But the number of women in professional armies (though now increasing in NATO countries) is very small. Many soldiers don’t welcome women in what they see as an essentially male environment. Few armies allow women to fight on the front line on the ground, though there are women who think they should. They are not viewed with sympathy by the majority of women, however. But in some countries, including Britain, women are allowed to fly fighter and bomber aircraft, and fire their missiles. The element of distance from the targets is presumably what makes this acceptable to military authorities.


The main theme of the poem is the devastation and consiquences of war. Another idea of the poem is the mental effect of war. The quote ” only her memory is dead forever more” show that people can be impacted mentally by war, as well as physicly, and the effect is permanent, which is emphasised by the word “forever”.

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