Come On, Come Back by Stevie Smith

Steve Smith’s poetry seems to take on its own unique style. Like any good author, her voice distinguishes her poems from the rest, more so than any element of style or rhyme or verse — and her messages come across most profoundly. In Come On, Come Back, Stevie’s unmistakable style takes the reader into the future to examine themes of war, of suffering, and of human instinct, as it appears in the worst of times.

 

Come On, Come Back Analysis

(incident in a future war)

Stanza 1

Come On, Come Back, which can be read in full here, is written in a free-verse style, with very little rhyme or structure to keep the story together in a typically poetic way. Immediately, the reader is told that the events of the poem take place in the future. The author’s use of parentheses, as well as not using punctuation in the first line, keeps it removed from the rest of the story, and only serves as brief notification for the reader. After this, the poem begins in fairly straightforward fashion, describing that a battle has concluded on the field of Austerlitz (in the Czech Republic), leaving behind one soldier named Vaudevue surviving. It is the middle of the night, and she is doing nothing but sitting on a stone, tapping her fingers on the ground. This verse is heavy in atmospheric detail; the noting of the moonlight, of being alone, of the “ebbing tide” paints the picture of a fairly uneasy peace for Vaudevue, in a picturesque setting (though this is only because the actual battlefield is not described; the presumption is that she is likely surrounded by the aftermath of the battle).


Stanza 2

The next verse of Come On, Come Back centres around a compound, M L 5, which is described as being the “first / Of all human exterminators.” The Memel Conference is an imaginary event that undoubtedly takes place in the future narrative, but one, we can assume, that was a discussion concerning chemical weaponry. Without properly explaining what M L 5 is, we learn only that Vaudevue was exposed to it during the fighting, suggesting she does not have long to live. She is barely alive, and has no memory of anything, suggesting that M L 5 is a chemical that attacks the nervous system. Vaudevue is terrified and alone, unable to understand anything that has happened, except that she is dying.

This verse takes the atmosphere from the first one and shatters it, turning this post-battle narrative into one of terror. Rather than describing moonlit scenery, this verse is dedicated to the description of an unknown chemical that causes unknown damage, and a soldier left without memory who is dying from its influence.


Stanza 3

The third verse described the first movements of the soldier after the poem begins. She rises from her stone, and staggers, indicating that the is wounded or hurt, and travels across the meadow, for “seeming miles,” indicating that her exhaustion is further straining her experience. She does reach her destination, however — the edge of a nearby lake. The physical description of the feeling of the sand beneath her feet tells us that she is not wearing any shoes — it also describes a specifically miserable element of the natural landscape to highlight the inner feelings of Vaudevue.


Stanza 4

The fourth verse of Come On, Come Back is the longest one, and ironically, one of the verses wherein the least happens. After reaching the edge of the water, the soldier violently removes her clothing and dives into the lake. The lake is described as being “adorable,” or desirable, and the soldier’s actions are depraved and deprived of reason. She can barely see the lake, except for the glimmer of moonlight that reflects off of its surface, and it parallels her mental state very nicely — everything is black except for one glimmer of moonlight, the one idea left in her mind telling her to leap into the lake. Beneath the waters, everything is icy and dark — in a similar manner to her own mind, which she can no longer access.


Stanza 5

Even though she has no memory, we see Vaudevue weeping as she understands the terror that surrounds her utterly. In the same manner as she tries to access her own mind, she swims up the moonlit part of the river, and follows it until a sudden current pulls her beneath the surface. The river is personified here, and is described as swimming with her, as though the current understands what she wants and wants to give it to her — rather than being cold and dark and merciless.


Stanzas 6-7

At some point afterwards, an enemy soldier (“sentinel” typically referring to a guard or an observer) happens by the lake and notices the discarded enemy uniform. Realizing that the owner of the uniform is likely swimming in the lake, they wait for the enemy to emerge, and as they do, they begin to sing a song to herald the coming dawn (suggesting at least six hours have passed since the previous verse), beginning with the lyrics “come on, come back.”


Stanza 8

In the final verse of Come On, Come Back, Vaudevue sleeps beneath the waters of the lake, which is to say she drowned after diving in. The current is described as embracing her, which suggests that damaged as her mind was, she knew what was going to happen to her and wanted to choose a quicker death than one at the hands of M L 5. And because she is dead, she does not hear the song of the nearby sentinel, one that she herself enjoyed to sing. It is revealed that every army involved in this war has enjoyed the same song, and that “come on, come back” was in fact a kind of unifier, something to hold in common across enemy lines throughout the war. This theme of unity is an interesting choice to conclude the poem with, but it is one that Smith chose well, for it adds a sudden, new dimension to the piece, a kind of sliver to suggest that there may still be hope in this futuristic world that still obsesses over war and suffering.

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