John Burnside on David Gascoyne


Out of their slumber Europeans spun

Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash

Of a new golden era; but could not restrain

The vertical white weight that fell last night

And made their continent a blank.


Hush, says the sameness of the snow

The Ural and Jura now rejoin

The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;

Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:

Contours and boundaries no longer show.


The warring flags hang colourless a while;

Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce

Between the signs and seasons, and fades out

All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,

How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!


‘Snow in Europe’, David Gascoyne



What better poem, (written in 1938, on the eve of WWII) to remember now, as the whole shoddy ‘Brexit’ farce plunges the now thoroughly dis-United Kingdom into an ugly, separatist nationalism. It’s a rich poem, with much to look for, but I will single out its most obvious, though very beautiful, image: as the snow falls, it blanks out both human-imposed boundaries (country and town) and the geographical features upon which they are mapped, (plain, mountain). It blanks out the flags of the warring nations and, though the truce may only be ‘feigned’, it suggests, for one poignant moment, an alternative to the bloodbath that will follow the thaw. Gascoyne had lived through the callous betrayal of a democratically-elected Spanish government, (by both ‘the West’ and the Soviet Union), and he had no illusions about what was coming. What remained was to diagnose the sickness – nationalism, xenophobia, the seeming propensity for nation-based (i.e. property-based) societies to go to war, no matter what the costs.


I can only guess, but I imagine that David Gascoyne, if he were here now, would be as critical of the EU’s economic faults as anyone. He would have deplored the lobbying in Brussels, the infiltration of business interests into government, and a subsidy system that, in the cases of agriculture and energy, for example, favours the rich and does little to benefit the environment. However, as an anarchist, I think he would have seen the overwhelming logic, and the justice, of the Union’s central ideal: that is, to bind nations together in systems that transcend nationalisms, so that the hideous wars of the past century become less likely. In the absence of the still-distant but logically possible outcome (that we all set our national prejudices aside and work together for the common good internationally), the idea of Europe was, and I hope will continue to be, one of the great political ideas of the twentieth century, and I feel sorry to see it so thoroughly bruised and battered by an ill-considered and mendacious campaign based on hatred and fear.


Gascoyne’s poem used with permission from Enitharmon Press.

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