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Thursday, 29 December 2011

December 2011, a Memory of August 1968 - For Vaclav Havel

They woke us from our tents
In the darkness before dawn
And gave us each a candle.
They had crouched over the radio all night
And guessed the worst.
We made our way to the water’s edge
A row of tiny lights on the dark shore.
To the mournful sound of a single flute
We stood, silent and bereft
Looking into the black night
While hundreds of miles away
Another kind of darkness rumbled forward
Over the frontier
Grinding the dreams of Spring
To dust.

We thought hope lost
And could only offer our sad tribute
To those who fought for freedom.

But hope and freedom are seeds that will not sleep
Small bright shoots split stone
Shatter concrete
Their progress more inexorable
Than any trundling tank.
The brave gardener whose fearless tending
Of improbable seedlings
Gave us back belief,
Now returns himself to the nurturing earth
And reminds us
That when the darkness seems most complete
Dawn is not so far away.

© Elizabeth Soule

Vaclav Havel funeral: World leaders pay respects


Elizabeth Soule is a retired Head Teacher and I belong to Poetry Aloud, in Bury St Edmunds: 'Poetry is how I process my reactions to the world.'


  1. Acclaimed poet-playwright turned great statesman – history certainly doesn’t throw up many like Vaclav Havel. He was a exceptional man deserving of genuine respect and appreciation. While watching snatches of his funeral on the news, I knew that. But it wasn’t until I read this poem that I felt it, too. So thank you, Elizabeth.

    I am too young to remember the grinding of the dreams of Spring to dust beneath the treads of Soviet tanks, but your memory of that August night in the first stanza clearly evoked the time and place for me. Again, thank you.

    This is a real memory, personal to you, isn’t it? If so, I for one would be interested to learn a little more about the background to it if you have some time and don’t mind adding a comment about where you were, who you were with, why the tents, your thoughts at the time . . .

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  2. A wonderful poem with some powerful imagery. The line about trundling tanks brought it back to me too. In August 1968 I was staying in a village near Vienna with an Austrian family. We awoke during the night to hear tanks rumbling into the village. Fortunately they were Austrian troops, and subsequently we had soldiers billeted with us. For a sixteen year old English girl and her Austrian friend this was a memorable but frightening time. My host family played it down, but as their son was a conscript there was a certain amount of anxiety. I have never forgotten those times.

  3. To those who have commented, thank you for the encouragement.Yes, this is a personal memory, I was at an international youth camp in Denmark.We were camping in a field on the edge of a fjord with little contact with the outside world but a number of our members were Swedish political activists and they had been following the news and reporting back to the rest of the camp. As the tension mounted we felt increasingly helpless. Most of us had been involved in demonstrations, university sit-ins, or at least performing protest songs and signing petitions and we had begun to believe we could change the world from our safe western billets. The crushing of the Prague Spring was a real jolt to our naive confidence.I think cynicism is hugely dangerous and a man like Vaclav Havel is important to so much more than his own country.