‘stone from very stone
Has dropped, and grey grass of oblivion
Crawls in the cracks to blot the lines beneath.’
Today is National Poetry Day so I flicked through Mary Stewart’s Frost on the Window and other poems. I thought I was looking for something light-hearted, verse about cats perhaps, but then I stopped at ‘Lidice’. This has happened before – the power in this poem stops me in my tracks. Mary Stewart writes in her foreword only that most of these poems were written before the 1950s; I imagine this poem to have been written in a blaze of sorrow and anger as soon as she heard about the Lidice massacre of 1942.
First of all, what was the Lidice massacre? Lidice is a village near Prague. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of what was Czechoslovakia, resistance fighters shot SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich (‘Hangman Heydrich’, who presented plans at the 1942 Wannsee Conference to co-ordinate a Europe-wide ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem’). Heydrich refused surgery by non-Germans and died eight days after the shooting. Hitler commanded that, for any village implicated in the assassination, all men aged 16 and over were to be executed, all women and children were to be sent to concentration camps (with the exception of children deemed suitable for Germanisation – blue-eyed blondes to be brought up by SS families), and the village was to be completely destroyed.
Despite any real evidence that any of the villagers of Lidice had had any involvement in Heydrich’s shooting, these terrible reprisals were carried out there. From 10 June 1942 onwards the following atrocities were committed: the execution of 173 men; the separation of women and children and their despatch to concentration camps; the gassing of the children; the slaughter even of the village livestock and pets; and the destruction of the village by fire and explosive, bulldozer and plough. Later in June a similar fate befell a second village, Lezaky, after a radio transmitter was found there.
A happier link in some ways is this BBC one which features a survivor and mentions the response to the massacre in Stoke-on-Trent, England, with its support for Lidice and its ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign begun in September 1942.
So now to the poem itself.
I think the poem is written beautifully, with anger reined in and concentrated in three verses of immense power. It begins in a matter-of-fact, almost cold tone:
‘This is a conquered village. Here is death’
and then goes on to sound, to my ears, a biblical note. ‘stone from very stone/ Has dropped’ makes me think of Jesus foretelling the fall of Jerusalem (‘there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’ Matthew 24:1 [ESV]), while ‘oblivion/ Crawls in the cracks’ evokes for me the devil-as-serpent: the presence of evil in what has taken place in Lidice.
Mary Stewart, remember, was the daughter of a vicar and grew up with the Bible. The Bible contains some stories of complete destruction of enemy cities, where people and even livestock were wiped out and the place was utterly razed to the ground, and Hitler’s commands are reminiscent of this. These scenes of destruction in the Bible were ordered in some instances for the purpose of rooting out evil, seemingly. Hitler’s commands were the product of murderous rage and a desire to punish and terrify – the purpose was to break resistance and to do so by inhumane, evil acts.
That Hitler fails in this purpose is the message of this poem. Verse two begins by echoing verse one but with a crucial change in tense: ‘This was a conquered village’ (my emphasis) – in attempting to crush life and humanity, instead the ‘tyrant’s touch’ has awoken steely determination to resist fascism. As Mary Stewart puts it, ‘you have blindly made/ Dangerous what lay dormant here before’.
The poem ends with a reference from Macbeth, who killed King Duncan when he was defenselessly asleep just as the Nazi soldiers killed the defenceless villagers. I find these lines very strong, surely as much a curse as a threat, and I find the whole poem fascinating when you consider Mary Stewart’s general reputation as a writer of romantic fiction.
‘You who have murdered sleep shall sleep no more,
And shall, who wrought by terror, be afraid.’