Current Affairs

A Merton professor’s unpublished poem to commemorate VE Day

It’s Victory in Europe day today – the 75th anniversary of the day when the Nazis submitted an unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, marking the end of WWII. However, what that looks like in lockdown will be quite different to the normal jingoistic festivities we see lining the streets.

In Oxford, some of the lockdown-friendly commemorations going on include bagpiper William Smith playing a traditional march at 3pm at the junction of Lathbury Road and Woodstock Road. Of course, the classic British bunting lines many of the houses filled with residents hosting family celebrations on this momentous day.

But even for those of us away from Oxford, if you’re looking to reflect on VE day perhaps the perfect way to do this would be to visit the website of the Imperial War Museum, where an unpublished poem of acclaimed war-poet and Oxford Professor of Poetry Edmund Blunden has been made available.

Blunden was offered a scholarship to study at The Queen’s College, Oxford University in 1914, however he decided instead to enlist in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He joined combat on the front-line from 1916 to 1918 and participating in some of the bloodiest fighting of WWI- during the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Ypres.

Blunden made it through the war and found his life’s fulfilment in taking up the scholarship at Oxford he was previously offered, and later on became an academic, ending his career as Oxford Professor of Poetry. He tutored at Merton and took up a post at the Times Literary Supplement, which is when he penned the poem that has been released entitled ‘V Day’.

This poem reflects on the nature of the victory at the end of WWII from the perspective of someone who had also lived through and experienced many of the horrors of WWI.

The poem is filled with a multitude of visceral experiences- from the terrors of the battlefield to the ecstasy of the final victory. However, what really resonated with me was the last stanza of the poem.

Blunden writes:

But could our striving wishes bring us back,

Those who in youth, those golden hearts and heads

Who fell untimely by the cratered track,

The vision would excel what now it sheds

Of blessing on this world; How shall we then

But by their memory rule what lies before

And from their genius light such ways that men

Through such convulsion never labour more?

Thence shall the final victory ever new

Sing in the lives of all that live: “We have come through”

What Blunden is perhaps exploring is the nature of victory itself: can the high point justify the fall of so many young men. Indeed, Blunden would not have been the only Oxford student to sacrifice his education for the purpose of war. Brasenose College in WWI was converted to a home for soldiers: food and bedding was provided for the wounded and the healthy alike, and even the JCR was furnished with newspapers and other such paraphernalia for the perusal of soldiers.

Reflecting on how much life changed during the war and how much was sacrificed- as Churchill has said “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”- Blunden provides memorable insights into what victory means. At the end of his poem he seems to allude to the idea that victory is not worth the sacrifice if humanity does not learn from the tragedy of war: let us commemorate the memory of fallen soldiers, but also commemorate a new era, in which human beings do not result to such horrors as war to resolve conflict. It is a remarkable poem touched with pacifist ideas that perhaps resonate very well with a modern audience of Oxford students.