Return to Rouen

One of the recurring themes of Rouen is a sense of isolation and distance. The poem itself may be considered a ‘war poem’ yet it is never dealt with directly. The narrator is a nurse, someone who deals with the aftermath of the action and provides a secondary service rather than actively participating in the fighting herself. She cannot directly influence any of the events nor can she stop or win the war herself.  All she can do is help those affected by it and this isolates her from the war effort as a whole and from the very soldiers she deals with. As Sigmund Freud remarked: “The individual who is not himself a combatant […] feels bewildered in his orientation, and inhibited in his powers and activities.”It creates a sense of distance between the narrative viewpoint and the subject matter of the poem and this is emphasised in stanza twelve when the nurse reflects on her memories of relative comfort whilst he aided the war effort. Whilst the narrator relaxes in the tranquillity of her surroundings, the “distant call of bugles” reminds both herself and the reader that men are giving their lives in the squalid frontlines. The finery and civility of “white wine in the glasses”, drunk on an idyllic “sunset” evening, poses a vivid contrast to the brutality of trench life.


The use of the setting of the narrator’s memories as a thematic tool representing confliction is used throughout the poem. They start off busy and vibrant, full of the  “hurry of awakening”  and “the laughter of adventure”. By the second half of the poem, the excitement has begun to fade to a dull lifelessness and the “high courageous morning” has turned to a “morning very still and solemn”. This can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, it could be interpreted as representing how the men have be changed by the war, in a way that will affect them forever more They arrived full of live and vigour, vivacious and eager to serve their country. By the end, they are silent from shellshock and nightmarish scenes that haunt them. Their voices are no longer heard, and the “unfamiliar faces” of the early scenes are never seen again. The bustle and noise, traits which are usually associated with the ambition and restlessness of youth, are cruelly culled by the war until there is nothing left but the silent, corpses and broken men.


However, it can also be seen as showing how the war affected the men in the trenches.  Many of them would have been swept up in the propaganda campaigns that urged them to fight for King and country, and presented the entire situation as an “adventure”. This excitement was soon annihilated by the harsh reality of senseless death and destruction. They saw their friends and colleagues die for what for what often seemed to be meaningless scraps of land, and they became downtrodden and quiet. This theme of the disparity between idealism and actuality is also strongly apparent in other parts of the poem. The idealised world is represented in the first sections, through the ‘station full of soldiers”, the “youth and pride of England”. This is the image that was being portrayed by the media and by the propaganda campaigns in Britain. It was loud and vocal declaring how wonderful it was to fight for one’s country. For the last years or so, being a member of the army was seen as being an adventure, a chance to see new places, travel and spread civility. The Boer wars of the recent contemporary past were nothing like the modern trench warfare the soldiers would be subjected to in France. Men imagined they were going to a place of “little piles of Woodbines” and “the crushes in the ‘Parlour’”. The use of an iconic cigarette and a colloquial nickname for a station behind the lines portrays the ignorance and idealism of the new recruit. They are both reminiscent of casual evenings in good company, of holidays and work leave. This idealised image of rest and enjoyment is harshly juxtaposed with the actuality of war’s brutal nature. There was no relaxation or amiable adventure, just the frantic scramble of life or death. This reality was so opposed to the spirit of this noble warrior epitomised in Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. In that popular contemporary work, the soldier declares: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”   Compared to the aggrandisement of the soldier and his heroic nature, the narrator’s lack of explicit detail symbolises how those that came back from the war did not want to boast or be venerated, they were antithetical to the bombastic cries of the press; tired men rendered mute by tragedy. They were not the tall proud Tommy, but a crippled man who found no pleasure in taking another man’s life in senseless brutal combat. It represents the dillusionment of the soldier who departed amidst “the cheering and the waving” of the public: sent on his way to the killing fields of France with merriment and veneration.  It highlights the tragic irony in this celebration of such an abhorrent thing, where after the enthusiasm fades; all that is left is “darkness”.  The stars at the station expand on this idea, traditionally they bring light to dark places and are symbols of hope, yet in this poem they are mocking as they sit above the masses, implying that there is no light, no good, no beauty to be found in this war, only sadness. The soldiers themselves are perceived by the people to be heroes akin to such stars, but in reality they are not bright beacons in the darkness, but sparks that snuff one another out to keep their own glow flickering on. They are driven on through the night by “the promise of the daylight firing blue the window-pane”: a resolution where they are no longer looked to by the public for hope but hidden within the unwavering blue of a sunny day. In essence they are ordinary again and all the darkness will be banished.


In reality, there was no bright new day for the men that fought in the war, only death or injury. The narrator seems to be addressing once such figure in this poem, a wounded soldier. She frequently mixes “you” with “I” implying that she is not the only person present and experiences such as “returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles” towards the “white-decked Red Cross barges” are more suited to a injured man than a nurse. The ellipsis at the start of the final stanza could be seen as the introduction of a new voice, this other person who she is addressing. The importance of this figure is not what he says, but rather his silence. If there is another present throughout the entire poem why are his only words at the end? He can be seen as the silent, weary man of the war who has returned home changed. His lack of communication and the narrator’s frequent imperatives that implore him to speak such as, suggest that he is unwilling to speak of what he has seen so she must ask him to remember specific aspects in order to coax them out of him. Unlike her, he does not recall the weather or the time but rather the personal side of the conflict: “When other men remember I remember our Adventure” This directly conflicts with her more distant approach in which she is able to separate herself from her work. He has had to live this nightmare constantly and as such he has seen it and felt it with his “heart” as well as his mind.    She however, chooses not to use explicit descriptions of what she must have seen as a nurse and there are a number of interpretations possible for this. If she is addressing another that has been in the war, she may not want to bring back the painful memories for him and she has no need to be vivid for he experienced the horror firsthand. It may also be seen as a symbol of isolation, to do her job she became highly detached from her work, her professional side dealing with the wounds and the mutilation, whilst her personal side only saw the thankful faces and the higher irony such as seen in adventure.  This is supported by the narrators shift in tone. At first she weaves description with can you recall in a remiscient manner in a way that evokes images of holidays, travelling and fond memories. By the end of the piece she is asking to forget the foul stench of death that contaminates these idealic scenes.


April 22, 2018


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