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.