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  • Writer's pictureAlaric Mark Lewis

On VE Day and Maya Angelou

In the poem When Great Trees Fall, Maya Angelou likens grief to the effects on the world when a great tree falls:

When great trees fall,

           rocks on distant hills shudder,

           lions hunker down 

           in tall grasses,

           and even elephants

           lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

            in forests,

           small things recoil into silence,

           their senses

           eroded beyond fear.

And then, if we didn't get the metaphor, she abandons the image of the fallen tree and replaces the image of "great trees" with that of "great souls":

When great souls die,

            the air around us becomes

            light, rare, sterile.

            We breathe, briefly.

            Our eyes, briefly,

            see with

            a hurtful clarity.

            Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


            gnaws on kind words


            promised walks

            never taken.

Great souls die and

            our reality, bound to

            them, takes leave of us.

            Our souls,

            dependent upon their


            now shrink, wizened.

            Our minds, formed

            and informed by their

            radiance, fall away.

            We are not so much maddened

            as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of

            dark, cold


I am always a bit taken aback by people who make of VE Day an opportunity for breast-beating nationalism, for shouting to the world how great we were, and by extension, how great we are. Of course we should be proud of what that generation accomplished, grateful for the courage and spirit that saw that this country would not back down, would not be defeated, even in the face of extraordinary odds. But I find it distasteful when some celebrate conquering a very real manifestation of evil, whilst at the same time using that celebration to promote a vision of the world and of this country which would echo some of the hateful rhetoric that people literally died to try and silence. Occasions like VE Day should serve as a catalyst for decent folk to continue that work of silencing hatred in the world, of not standing by whilst others would shout about "making Britain great again!" at the expense of marginalised and vulnerable people.

And, though I will be amongst those celebrating with a toast and - you know me and bells - tolling a church bell seventy-five times, none of us can forget the sacrifices that were made so that the world itself could be transformed. Each toll will speak of joy at our victory, but at the same time will speak of kind words unsaid and promised walks never taken. We owe it to those who lost their lives that the grief not be completely eclipsed, but be allowed - through remembering the best of humanity - to transform into something very much like hope: hope that the sacrifices made for a better world continue to inspire us to better that world. Only in looking at the whole picture can we move from the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves to the blessed light and expanse of hope.

Hope is precisely where Angelou finishes:

And when great souls die,

            after a period peace blooms,

            slowly and always

            irregularly. Spaces fill

            with a kind of 

            soothing electric vibration.

            Our senses, restored, never

            to be the same, whisper to us.

            They existed. They existed.

            We can be. Be and be

            better. For they existed.

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