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Colour VE Day: A Critique

by on 9 May 2020

Cyclical Path to Peace

Colour VE Day

by Keith Wait

A Commemoration of VE Day 75, 8th May 2020

Critique by Celia Bard

Read the full poem Colour VE Day here.

Colour VE Day is a thought provoking title, for it raises a question about the grammatical use of the word ‘colour’: is it a noun or a verb? The latter brings to mind an image of the many thousands of rainbow pictures that have been painted by children throughout the country, whereas the former summons up the image of VE Day bursting forth from the monochrome colour of the previous war years to the light and colour of VE Day and beyond.

Written in free verse, the writer of this poem is free of the tyrannical demands of the metric line, regular rhyme, and rhythm. However, this writer is no novice to poetic conventions and the techniques he employs allow readers to follow his thought processes from different perspectives though you have to unpick the trail of clues he leaves. The pace of the poem varies in keeping with its content and imagery. Many lines in the poem begin with a strongly stressed word. In other lines the stress is on the second word. This change of beat creates a specific flow of sound which musically is very pleasing.

The many references to the brightness and colour of the sky throughout the poem act as a poetic background to the many events referred to by the writer. In the first stanza the sky of platinum (75 years being a platinum anniversary) is a mirror reflecting a clear silvery sky, symbolising the colourful nature of VE Day and the end of a horrific war. This is juxtaposed with images of a fiery sun and red sky and the blood of men who lost their lives in war. The poet then makes mention of a ‘brother’s blood’. When first reading these lines, I wondered whether this was a mistake, anticipating the use of the plural. On reflection the use of the singular is perfect for it strongly personalises the death of a close member of the family. That brother is everybody’s brother.


Surrender Document Is Signed in Rheims, 8th May 1945

‘Early May’ begins the first line of the next stanza, a time when we tend to think of spring, blossom, and great weather. Not so for we are presented with an image of the dark sky before dawn against which the ruins of the city of Rheims is contrasted. The first morning rays of sunlight then break through symbolising a new beginning, as was in Rheims that the surrender document for the Second World War was signed. The third stanza is full of wonderful contrasts, descriptions, and images. The first two lines takes us into a fairy-tale world where we meet a beautiful Princess in disguise so that she can mingle with the people in her kingdom. This alludes to the time when Queen Elizabeth, then a princess, together with her sister escape the confines of Buckingham Palace in order to blend unnoticed with crowds of people celebrating VE Day in around the Palace. The detailed and colourful description of people in the crowd could with a little imagination be those that the two Princesses meet as they make their way through the streets back in 1945. Differences in social class are categorised by drinking preferences. The working classes drink ‘Watney’s stout’ in Victoria whilst the upper class savour champagne in Mayfair.

The fourth stanza startles us with its sudden and serious shift in mood. ‘Despots’ are alluded to; no name is mention but they are easily recognisable by their colours and country of origin. ‘The Corsican corporal’s pompous pride, bright blue’ alludes to Napoleon, whilst Hitler is known as ‘The Munich beer hall bully, scarlet, black’. I’m not sure about ‘The Brussels bureaucrat, a stealthy grey’? This conjures up an image of the present EU and Brussels bureaucrats. In the following stanza the poet describes a new ‘silent despot, unseen and new’. This, of course, is an allusion to COVID 19, the unseen enemy. Its presence made known only when the person it infects becomes ill or worse, dies. The reference to the Enigma machine used to break code during wartime contrasts sharply with the mysterious code and nature of the virus prevalent throughout the world of today.

The penultimate stanza takes us back to VE Day 2020 when rainbow images appear in the windows of many homes. ‘Flying flags’ appear, and mention is made of all those who died in the war and ‘for freedom’. These images emphasise the original purpose of VE Day, which was to celebrate the end of War. The last few lines of the final stanza, shorter in line length, denote another shift in time, once more we are in the presence of ‘bright colours’, thanking God and shouting “VE Day.” We have travelled full circle, starting where we began with the image of the ‘platinum mirror’ mentioned in the first stanza. It’s like being on a roller coaster, moving up and down while following a cyclical path, one that reflects the past, looks forward but also again looks back.

Many poetic phrases stand out. The description of ‘a gold and white palace’ conjures up a world of fantasy and fairy tales. The phrase ‘No Enigma machine / Decodes our invisible enigma’ brings the two wars in perspective. Particularly pleasing is the image about champagne: ‘Vintage Veuve Clicquot labelled in orange / Secret in cellars, dark since ’39 / Spurts sparkling silver to the evening sky’. ‘Spurts’ is onomatopoetic and sums up a visual image of popping corks and jets of precious champagne shooting up into the evening sky. The ’sparkling silver’ contrasts beautifully with ‘The shining black of Watney’s stout foams free’. There may be a notable difference in the characteristics of the two drinks but both are deliciously enticing.

Colour VE Day resonates strongly in the current climate. In 1945 people gathered in crowds, danced, and drank together, things we are now unable to do under social distancing. Who would have thought that in the VE Day of 1945? This is a great poem, made more powerful because of the current pandemic.

Celia Bard
May 2020

From → Poems

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