#21 “After the Blitz” (J.R. Ackerley)

J. R. Ackerley’s “After the Blitz” is so little-known that only one blogger has ever bothered to post the entire text of the poem on the Web. And even this blogger has contributed to the continuing obscurity of the poem by not posting its title or author. Ackerley was a distinguished English journalist, a writer of great memoirs like My Dog Tulip. His poetry, privately published in short collections, is almost unknown. Some years ago I met a writer who had been a close friend of Ackerley’s. I mentioned “After the Blitz.” The writer was puzzled – she hadn’t known Ackerley wrote poems at all.

The form of “After the Blitz” deliberately recalls that of Tennyson’s sequence of poems “In Memoriam,” which, like “After the Blitz,” was written for a beloved friend who had died too young. Like the “In Memoriam” poems, “After the Blitz” rhymes ABBA, a lovely form that folds one couplet around an internal couplet. (“After the Blitz” uses 10-syllable lines, though, not the 8-syllable lines of “In Memoriam.”)

The “Blitz,” of course, is the German bombardment of London and other cities at the height of Hitler’s power during the Second World War. The speaker of the poem describes an apartment where he and his lover have spent some good time together. The apartment has been severely damaged in the Blitz, and he’s rebuilt it. Meanwhile, the soldier/lover has gone missing – presumed dead, but with his official fate unresolved. The speaker sets everything in the flat up so that the lover will feel at home, in the unlikely event he ever returns.

“After the Blitz” is an incomparable love poem that ranges far beyond a single or simple relationship, to talk about love itself, and the way in which war destroys people’s plans. Among the poem’s many beauties is the exquisite tension between “man’s resilience” in rebuilding after the Blitz, and the unbearable, final loss of the one person who would have been all the reason in the world to rebuild.

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7 responses to “#21 “After the Blitz” (J.R. Ackerley)

  1. firewaterboi321

    It is difficult for me to truly understand the loneliness and uncertainty that waiting for a lover who’s not coming back could bring. Moving forward in life after a catastrophe like the Blitz would seem meaningless. There’s a certain innocence that we have in the illusion of our own security. The reality is we, as humans, are always in danger of losing everything because of disaster, including the bombing of a populated city. Once these disaster occur, our perception of “real life” solidifies into illusion. The shock of an event would make any person feel as if they were “stuck” in their past. The clock that was behind an hour in the poem, to me, symbolizes Ackerley’s sense of time slowing down for him. The sense that the world had stopped, and would never move forward until his missing piece was returned. It’s very difficult to imagine a life like that, considering I’ve never lived through a horrific experience like WWII. Hopefully I will never have to live through that kind of pain. It’s writing like this that makes me appreciate the fact I can even understand written language. Although I cannot empathize, I can certainly feel the echo of grief and loss the poem conveys.

  2. I didn’t want to admit this, but I was crying in class by the end of this poem. The topic of loss is universal, but this kind of loss can really only be understood by a certain few people. I try to empathize with others as much as I can, but that’s something that I can’t bring myself to understand. I think that the observation that was made in class was true: war does make real life like a movie. Things like this don’t just happen to people. We don’t typically have to experience semi-loss everyday. Dealing with loss is one thing: when you know that someone is gone from your life forever you can begin to pick up the pieces and move on. But when you have that constant “what if?” hanging over your head, how do you move on from that? How do you let yourself cope with the loss when you don’t really know that you’ve lost? Every line in the poem drips with a kind of desire and longing that I hope I never have to face. Even the little phrases (“All’s ready for you, see”) have this depressing innocence about them. It’s like begging, but not knowing what you’re begging for. In the end, is it better that the person never returned? Would the poet have been them same if they had? Not that I enjoy people having to live through things like that, but if not for those tragedies then amazing things like this would never be created. I suppose it’s bad for him that his lover never returned, but in a way, it’s better for the rest of us.

  3. In the poem, “After the Blitz, 1941,” the speaker finds himself with the painful and daunting task of sorting through the rubble of war and rebuilding after the devastating loss of his home and possibly his lover. He is torn between the pull of the past and the push of the future. He says, “ Though here and there some defect still reveals, The clock strikes three but it is four, Whose face stares back at me from the bright mirror? How life falls somewhat short of our ideals.” The defect in the clock suggests that time is moving on, but he is stuck in the past. The mirror seems to suggest that the reality of his loss is staring at him, but he is unwilling to accept it. He mustered up the strength to rebuild his home in the event that his missing solider / lover one day might return. However, it is easy to be resilient when there is still hope, but the real courage lies in the person who has to rebuild and move forward when all hope is gone. Sometimes life can deal us circumstances that the only thing we can do is simply mark time. In the middle of the poem, the speaker seems to try to accept the reality of his loss and move forward. He says, “For setting the sad mileage of the mind, Against the journey and the destination, I ask myself, in all this preparation, What lies ahead that is not lost behind?” Here the speaker is preparing himself for the grief journey that accompanies the acceptance of a loss, but he struggles with the question of what’s the point of moving into the future if what he desires the most in life was lost in his past.

  4. I enjoyed this poem for many different reasons. It involves a piece of history that has always intrigued me, World War II. It is captivating with the love story between the speaker and the lost soldier. Also, I like the form of the poem. The ABBA form for some reason makes it easier for me to read. I guess this is what I grew up thinking a poem should sound like. I also like that the poem is just the right length. It’s not too long that it drags on and on about how much the speaker misses his loved one and becomes obnoxious. However, it is just long enough to give the reader the understanding that the soldier lost is the speaker’s soul mate and he is devastated by his loss.
    I agree with scuttles, the topic of loss is universal. This is what makes this poem, or any poem for that matter, great…when we can empathize. It draws emotion out of us while we read. I felt so sorry for the speaker. He seemed so lost without his partner. He was in even more pain because he really didn’t know if his lover was dead or not. Love always involves hope. So, when someone you love is missing how do you let go of that hope without feeling like your letting go of the love? If this situation occurred to me I would be afraid of giving up hope to soon. I mean, how terrible would you feel if you had moved on and suddenly your lover returns?

  5. kursteilnehmur

    People are wired to be with companions. We see that within the poem a man is experiencing solitude, and he is coping with it in the only way he knows how to, by rebuilding and refurnishing the flat. He has received notice that his lover has gone missing, and does not know if life will return to the way it was before the war. This poem speaks of hope amidst the anguish and frustrations of life. We can see that the man has as undying faith in his lover’s survival. He believes in his lover’s imminent return, and that is enough consolation for the moment. There is a fear of loss that he must carry with him while waiting, and yet the aspect of loss does not seem so strange when you consider he is in wartime. People hold different amounts of resilience to pain, affliction, suffering and loss. Some people can cope easily with it, and others cannot. This may seem coldhearted, but it is true. Humans are naturally social, being left alone, or in a confined space drives us insane. Even in the elevator everyone looks in one direction, waiting for the doors to open. Solitary confinement drives prisoners mad, just like someone not returning your calls, or not showing up to repair your sink will drive you mad. The University of California has conducted a study on prisoners in isolation, and how the human mind copes with the loss of contact with others. They have found that being alone, with little or no human contact can drive one to become mad. Prisoners lose track of their perception of time, identity and how to maintain relationships with others. A day in the cell may seem like a week. Who they are becomes fantasy. People who come in contact with them upon their release will see that the convicts sometimes change personalities, and act on impulse more often. Society thrives on relationships; Facebook and Myspace are great attributes to that. We live in a world that in which communication is necessary. Having a great relationship full of fond memories with someone is priceless. The fact that they may not come back is a terrible thing, and people who go through ordeals such as this have my sincere condolences.

  6. This poem, “After the Blitz” was a sad one. I could really empathize with the speaker. The poem painted a picture for me of the apartment he rebuilt. It was sad that he never knows if his love will return and all that rebuilding he did was for his love. The poem is also sad because it makes you think about the capacity war has on a person. I know there are situations far worse during war than a damaged apartment, but that apartment means so much to that speaker. War is not something you plan on, and neither is the loss of your loved one. Those things are something you kind of deal with when you are confronted by them. But in this poem the man does not know that his love will not return. So the anxiety he must be experiencing is unimaginable. On top of having to rebuild his home, he does not even have the person he is rebuilding for there with him. It is a sad story and one everyone can empathize with. I also remember someone stating that the clock being an hour behind is interesting since it seems as though the speaker is also living behind, somewhat in the past. He is remembering the times he and his love shared in that apartment. He is describing everything to his love as though he will return. This is a really good poem and I like the picture that it paints, and how much emotion it contains.

  7. This poem is expressing how a person may feel after a big loss. Whether it is to a loved one or their home. When we lose something special to us we feel as if apart of us is gone. It is hard to get over a big loss and go on with your life for many dofferent reasons. It may seem like we can not go on. Certain things may remind us of that special person or place every now and then. I like this poem because it expresses such deep feelings.

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