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Forward from Dunkirk: a Critique

by on 11 June 2020

Amor Vincit Omnia

Forward from Dunkirk

by Keith Wait

a critique by Eleanor Lewis

Amongst the poems that people know by heart, often you will find With Rue my Heart is Laden, (A E Housman, 1896). Other things aside, it’s two verses long, brief and to the point so it’s easy to memorise. It recalls friends known and lost and the years that have passed. This Be The Verse (Philip Larkin, 1971) is another: three verses and one with an exciting ‘f word’ if you encountered it as a teenager in school. This Be The Verse vents with a quiet humour about the parenting we were all subjected to, and the inevitability of continuing to get it wrong ourselves. I’m probably pushing it a little to group the author of Forward from Dunkirk with A E Housman and Philip Larkin but this poem too, looks back at where we have come from, in this case a world war. Forward from Dunkirk however views the future with optimism.

Forward edward-john-gregory-boulters-lock-on-the-thames

Forward from Dunkirk follows the fortunes of a family-owned boat which went with all the other little ships, to help evacuate soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940. What makes the recall of Larkin and Houseman’s poems easy is the solid rhythm and rhyme, both poems permeate your memory and stay there rather than have to be memorised. Dunkirk on the other hand breaks the rhythm to support the drama. It begins in a gentle, meandering style echoing the rocking of the boat on the water. The pretty boat on the river by Teddington Lock has been in the family for some time and it carries memories of the generations who used it before. Soft, whispering vocabulary evokes the breeze and the lapping water in the sunshine and a gentle rhyme keeps things stable.

Forwd Dunkirk-rescue-boat-with-Union-Jack

A little burst of alliteration wakes up the senses with images of remembered dancing and parties, “crêpe de chine … Sobranie smoking”, and the rhythm breaks with both the shock of first love and the arrival of 1940. Suddenly the boat is on its journey across the Channel and dreamy memories of happy times past are shattered by the vision of the now pitching boat fighting its way through smoke and shrapnel “breaking her bees-waxed boards”, under a “hail of hell”. The domestic, the ordinary citizens, all the “willing hostages to valour” are thrust mercilessly into the reality of war and the boards on the “fifteen foot of heaven floating” are now flying “heavenwards, upwards, to Dunkirk / in shards like prayers on high”. The horror of the threat faced by the free world eighty years ago is encapsulated by the image of the tiny, polished and much-loved pleasure boat under fire on the rolling sea. The fate of the boat, its passengers and its family history is that of many other little boats. It, and all on board, are lost.

Forward from Dunkirk is something of a hymn to human decency. It acknowledges the altruism and the sacrifices made in war and maintains that they were not made in vain. The poem’s final lines look optimistically forward, possibly referencing Larkin’s famous line: “what will survive of us is love”. As flawed human creatures we do not always see clearly but we always love, and love conquers all.

Eleanor Lewis
June 2020

Photography by E.J. Gregory, Philip Broadbent

From → Poems, Poetry Preview

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    A thoughtful and insightful critique of this beautifully composed poem. Thankyou.

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