Blunden’s ‘The Midnight Skaters’ begins by painting what seems at first to be a pleasant picture of an ‘icy pond’, a seemingly idyllic setting for a romantic poem, evoking images of happy skaters in a rural winter setting. As we read on, however, we are drawn deeper into the darker tones of the poem throughout each of the three stanzas and see that, far from being romantic, the underlying theme of the poem is a sense of impending danger.
In the first stanza the sense of danger is perhaps less apparent that in the following two, yet the signs are there from as early as the second line – ‘the icy pond lurks under’ – where the use of the word lurks signifies a darker element to the poem than if Blunden had chosen to use, for example, the word lies in the same context. That the ‘icy pond’ lurks beneath the surface is suggestive of more sinister forces at hand, which are further highlighted in the closing line of the opening stanza – ‘the ponds black bed’ – which, again, seems to signify some dark force lying in wait for the skaters.
The time at which Blunden wrote the poem is undoubtedly of significance. Having fought in the First World War, Blunden was living in a time of caution; naivety was lost and one was faced with the harsh reality that danger could – even in the simple, joyous event of skating on an icy pond – be lurking around the corner. We see evidence of this caution, and indeed suspicion, in the opening lines of the second stanza – ‘Then is not death at watch/Within those secret waters?’ These lines could be seen to symbolise the reality of impending death
in war; the ‘secret waters’ representing the enemy. The couplet that follows is also indicative of the naivety of the skaters, and indeed the time – ‘What wants he but to catch/Earths heedless sons and daughters?’ – the skaters (representative here, conceivably, of young soldiers) seemingly oblivious to the danger that may well await them. These lines could also be said to be the very centre of the poem, as it is here that the speaker conveys the central theme of that impending danger, that death itself is waiting and watching, ready to take into his clutches one of these unaware skaters, and it is in these lines that the tone of the poem grows darker, which is carried throughout the rest of the second and third stanzas.
We see at the end of the second stanza that the skaters are truly on thin ice – ‘With but a crystal parapet/Between,’ – and that dark force, be it danger or even death itself, waits with longing beneath for that ‘crystal parapet’ to give. Then, in the third stanza, the poem gains pace and it appears that the speaker is appealing directly to the skaters, to make them aware of the danger and, with further reference to Blunden’s own war experiences, almost barks instructions at the skaters like a Sergeant in charge of his troops – ‘Twirl, wheel and whip above him,/
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan’ – urging them to make the most of the pleasures to be found on the ice in spite of what might lurk beneath, and then again, the speaker is advising them – ‘Use him as though you love him;/Court him, elude him, reel and pass,’ – suggesting the skaters play up to the danger that has come to expect their downfall; let ‘him’ think he is winning, get as close to the danger, to ‘him’, as possible and then ‘elude him, reel and pass’, with the final victory belonging to the skaters, leaving ‘him’ resentful in defeat – ‘And let him hate you through the glass’ – able only to watch as the skaters escape unharmed.
The three stanzas of this poem represent different features of the dangerous theme at large, each drawing a parallel between the speakers view on the skaters and Blunden’s view on the war. The opening stanza is representative of the naivety towards danger, of the skaters and perhaps Blunden’s fellow soldiers, unable to ‘fathom’ the potential peril, whilst the second stanza shows the dawn of such a dark realisation and then in the third, the action and consequent victory of the skaters, or indeed the soldiers – as the skaters escaped death so too did the soldiers, by and large, by winning the war. And so as dark as the poem has seemed, we are left with a sense of triumph – as death has been faced and eluded.