02 Jun Poetic Interiority in Rose Macaulay’s “The Shadow”: Contrasting Civilian and Soldier Experiences in World War I by Mariel Matsuda
Rose Macaulay’s poem “The Shadow” explores the experience of civilian uncertainty, trauma, and helplessness during World War I aerial bombings, focalizing the interiority of civilians. Impressionist techniques of onomatopoeia and sparse diction elucidate trauma’s impact on civilians, marking their distress as inarticulable. The anticipatory dread of civilians awaiting an encroaching bomb is evoked through a narrowing geographical subject. To represent the grief and entombing destruction following a bombing, Macaulay utilizes internal rhyming structures which bury their resolution within the silencing surrounding of a line. Finally, the aerial raid as a “show” metaphor is an ironic understatement, highlighting both the devastating toll of the raid’s destruction and the helplessness of the civilians who can only observe – not resist raids. In the poem “The Shadow,” Rose Macaulay employs impressionistic poetic techniques to construct an evocative portrayal of civilian experiences of wartime death and destruction, examining how civilian experiences differ and converge with the experiences of soldiers.
The speaker first challenges distinctions between the soldier and civilian experience by conveying a civilian community’s claustrophobic anticipation of encroaching bombs. Though civilians are not active combatants, aerial raids force civilians to contend with uncertainty and destruction, similar to soldiers resisting attacks in bomb-ravaged battlefields. The rhyme “Blaze loud and bright, as if the stars were crashing right into the town, / And tumbling streets and houses down…” establishes an ominous, threatening atmosphere (Macaulay 67). The poem’s images grow increasingly specific in scope, from the broader classification of the “town” to the more proximate designation of its constituent “houses and streets,” evoking the dread of a “closing-in,” following the bomb’s approaching path. The more personal term of “houses” also affirms the devastating personal toll for civilians, who lose their homes and livelihoods as their neighbourhoods are torn apart like battlegrounds. As the distinction between “town” and “houses and streets” resolves with the completion of the rhyme, the distinction between battlefront and homefront becomes increasingly ambiguous as aerial raids target residential areas. Through graphic descriptions of the scale of destruction and trauma of death brought to civilian towns by aerial raids, Macaulay introduces how civilians contend with certain elements of the horror of the battlefield.
As the aerial raid progresses toward active bombing, Macaulay utilizes impressionist techniques and sparse diction to immerse the reader in the sensory overwhelm of the aerial raid and focalize the civilians’ panic and trauma. The onomatopoeic “Crash!” evokes a vividly jarring sound image (Macaulay 68). The exclamation is abrupt and unexpected, mirroring the panic-inducing air raid. This sensory immersion draws the reader into the civilians’ somatic and psychic reality, which is fragmented by trauma. The poem’s fractured structure suggests that the severe trauma of an aerial raid disturbs the civilians’ psyche, resulting in an inability to organize stimuli. Consumed with a concern of immediate survival, civilians struggle to articulate the trauma of the raid through full sentences. Moreover, the short sentences and focus on the present exemplify the unrelenting anxiety of experiencing an unpredictable bomb raid. Using present-tense interjections such as “Crash!”, the speaker abandons any sense of hindsight which would offer a sense of ease or predictability in the situation. Instead, the reader must experience the event with the same immediacy and uncertainty as the civilian observer. Through impressionist techniques of onomatopoeia and sparse diction, the text establishes how the psychic trauma of the civilian experience compares to the traumatic experiences of soldiers.
Following the violence and trauma of the bomb raid, Macaulay employs the silencing of internal rhyming structures to convey the aftermath of a bomb raid and illustrate how the cataclysmic scale of war complicates grief for soldiers and civilians alike. In one rhyme, a line illustrates the entombing devastation of bomb damage, describing, “Last time they messed our square, and left it a hot rubbish-heap, / With people sunk in it so deep…” (68). The poem’s enclosed rhyme parallels the rhyme’s content, with the embedded completion of the rhyme mirroring how the homes and bodies of civilians are buried beneath heaps of rubble in the aerial raid’s aftermath. Also, the internal placement of the rhyme’s completion reflects the silencing effect of a rubble-heap. Without the aural emphasis or pronounced visibility of a placement at the end of the line, the rhyming pattern becomes less obvious, even potentially obscured by adjacent words. The dampening of internal rhymes evokes how the tremendous scale of bombing damage obstructs civilian grief.
The metaphors and understatement of the aerial attack as a “show” or “shadow” of the experiences of soldiers reflect the helplessness felt by civilians and examines the difference between soldier and civilian experiences. The final unitalicized stanza of the poem concludes with the ironic understatement, “Tonight’s show begins, it seems” (68). The detached understatement of the line creates irony, juxtaposed against visceral images of the death and destruction wrought by the aerial attack. Additionally, the non-committal phrasing of “it seems” hints at further uncertainty. Though the night’s attacks have begun, the civilians are unable to anticipate the severity, timing, or duration of future attacks and are powerless to resist them. Moreover, the metaphor of the bombing as a “show” reinforces the helplessness of the civilians: like spectators attending a play or film, they are powerless to do anything but observe.
Instances of understatement and anaphora emphasize how the experiences of civilians, though legitimately traumatic and devastating, differ from the experience of soldiers on the Western Front. The speaker intertwines graphic descriptions of the horror of the aerial raid with italicized stanzas stating that such horrors are “pale” or periphery “shadows” of the “Fear,” “Pain,” and “Hell” which the “world’s young men” must confront in war (68). The word “shadow” suggests that the terror that the civilians experience is a diminished facsimile of the acute horror, danger, and trauma that soldiers experience. In addition, adjectives like “pale” describe the civilian experience as diluted in intensity. However, “shadow” also suggests that the two traumas are related. The silhouette of a shadow cannot exist without the source object it reflects and emulates. Thus, though the intensity of the civilian and soldier experience may differ, they share common elements of death and destruction, common symptoms of trauma, and a common cause: the scourge of war. Finally, the central metaphor of the civilian experience as a “shadow” echoes the poem’s title of “The Shadow,” reinforcing the connection between civilian and soldier experiences. The speaker first uses the term “shadow” to describe the ominous arrival of the aerial bomber, affirming that though the civilian and soldier experiences are not identical, they are both rooted in the suffering of war.
Rose Macaulay’s poem “The Shadow” utilizes poetic techniques to explore the subjective experience of civilians during an aerial raid while situating them within a broader understanding of the experience of soldiers. Describing how the bombers of the soldiers’ Western Front encroach upon the homefront in an aerial raid, subjecting civilians to some of the horrors of active combat, onomatopoeia and internal rhymes evoke the sensory pandemonium of bombing while sparse diction emphasizes the inarticulable severity of trauma. The metaphor of the aerial bombing as a “show” reflects the powerlessness and uncertainty civilians feel as spectators to devastation. Finally, in “The Shadow,” the poem’s central metaphor of the civilian experience as a “shadow” of the soldier’s experience reveals that though these experiences may differ in intensity and scale, they are similar in the destruction they wreak and their cause. Through the poem’s emphatic and vivid focus on civilian experiences, Macaulay refuses to diminish the trauma endured by civilians to bolster the atrocities soldiers face, suggesting that the civilian wartime experience is distinct but equally valid. The greater horrors witnessed by soldiers do not devalue the trauma of civilians; instead, they reiterate the indiscriminate and despicable magnitude of wartime loss.
Macaulay, Rose. “The Shadow.” Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, edited by Catherine Reilly, Virago, 2006, pp. 67-68.