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Chairing Mary

Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled
Upstairs every night in a wooden chair,
She sat in all day as the sun sundialled
Window-splays across the quiet floor…

Her body heat had entered the braced timber
Two would take hold of, by weighted leg and back,
Tilting and hoisting, the one on the lower step
Bearing the brunt, the one reversing up

Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk,
And not embarrassed, but never used to it.
I think of her warm brow we might have once
Bent to and kissed before we kissed it cold.

Seamus Heaney, 2006

COMMENTARY: This is one of a series of domestic poems from Heaney’s 2006 book District and Circle. As a “portrait d’une femme,” it is a picture of passive suffering, as Mary appears almost as a piece of furniture–a hurting bulk, heavy and helpless. The contrast between this beset invalid and the young woman who might have been bowed to and kissed (chaired, here, in the sense of enthroned) is central emotional tension of the poem. But is the poem really a ‘portrait d’une femme?’ Is it really about Mary? It seems as much a reflection on the complex unease of the young men who carry her up the stairs–(“Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk/ And not embarrassed but never used to it”) as it is on her.

In terms of technique, I like the almost rhyme on “sundialled” and “manhandled” and the way the cramped, hard-edged nouns in the opening stanza give way to the looser, more direct music of the final stanza. “Her body heat had entered the braced timber” strikes me as an especially beautiful line.

From “Grandfather’s Old Ram”

You see, Sile Hawkins was–no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all–it was a galoot by the name of Filkins–I disremember his first name; but he was a stump–come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul–had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow–the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”–and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again–wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig–Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife–a ratty old buzzard, he was, that used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for ‘em; and there that old rip would sit all day, in the shade, on a coffin that he judged would fit the can’idate; and if it was a slow customer and kind of uncertain, he’d fetch his rations and a blanket along and sleep in the coffin nights.

–Mark Twain, 1872

COMMENTARY: Not a poem this week but a fun little passage from “The Story of Grandfather’s Old Ram”–a chapter in Twain’s semi-autobiographical Roughing It, a collection of anecdotes about Twain’s travels out west after the Civil War. At the time Twain wrote the book, he was better known as a comedic journalist than a novelist, yet, throughout Roughing It, as in this passage, he experiments with creative techniques (dialect, free association, colloquialism, grotesque humor) that he would use so well in his later fiction.

I laughed out loud when read this little passage earlier this week. Poor bald-headed, stump-legged Miss Wagner with the one eye she borrows to take company in, jammed with cotton, rolling backwards, falling out of her head (though she never notices)! And that ratty old coffin-peddler who sits outside sick peoples houses waiting for them to die. Ah, Twain.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

–Wilfred Owen 1917

COMMENTARY: “Imaginative writing,” says the novelist Martin Amis, “is a war on cliches.” It wants to get to the truth of things behind the usual bland gab. This poem is a war on a particular cliche’: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” a line of Horace’s, “sweet and decorous it is to die for one’s country”–and the accompanying belief in a martial patriotism. It’s been remarked that this poem suffers from an overabundance of detail, violent and unpleasant, “white eyes writhing in the face/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” or “froth-corrupted lungs” or “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” This thick vehemence, however, is the whole point. Owen wants to lay on the language so gorily that the proverb in dead Latin seems all the more meaningless by comparison.

Interestingly enough, though Horace recommended a patriotic death to others, the story about him is that, during the Battle of Philipi, he went AWOL, leaving his shield behind—a deed for which he (arguably) deserves more honor than for writing that line.


Olivia’s lewd, but looks devout,
And scripture-proofs she throws about
When first you try to win her.
Pull your fob of guineas out,
See Jenny first, and never doubt
To find the saint a sinner.

Baxter by day is her delight:
No chocolate must come in sight
Before two morning chapters:
But lest the spleen should spoil her quite,
She takes a civil friend at night
To raise her holy raptures.

Thus oft we see a glowworm gay
At large her fiery tail display,
Encouraged by the dark;
And yet the sullen thing all day
Snug in the lonely thicket lay,
And hid the native spark.

–Elijah Fenton, 1707

COMMENTARY: I don’t think anybody teaches Elijah Fenton anymore, and several English professors I mentioned his name to had never heard of him. I only found this poem by chance leafing through Paul Fussell’s anthology English Augustan Poetry. During Fenton’s lifetime, though, he was fairly well-known. Or at least known by the right people. As schoolmaster at a small school in Kent, he was private tutor to the statesman William Trumbull. Though his literary output was small (a book of poems in 1707 and a biography of John Milton in 1725), he had the good fortune of living roughly next door to Alexander Pope. According to Samuel Johnson, Fenton’s poems impressed Pope who then asked him to help with his verse translation of The Odyssey. When Fenton died in 1730, Pope composed his epitaph calling him: “A poet blest beyond the poets fate/ Whom heav’n left sacred from the proud and great.”

Anyway, I like this poem for its lively control of its musical form, the wiliness of its euphemisms (especially the winking “civil friend” for lover) and the striking final metaphor. The “Jenny” in the fifth line likely refers to a waiting maid (at the time, Jenny was the “Jeeves” of maid names) who likely had some influence over her mistress. Baxter was Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian theologian, whose What Must We Do To Be Saved was a popular devotional in the early 18th century.

Victory Comes Late

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

–Emily Dickinson, 1861

COMMENTARY: Emily Dickinson is not often thought of as a “war poet.” Living in Amherst her entire life, never making it much father south than Philadelphia, she lived out her days in extreme physical isolation. Nevertheless, she would have read about the Civil War in the papers every day and, to someone of her imaginative depth, the war must have been a vivid reality. This poem, written just at the start of the Civil War, contrasts two images: someone (presumably a soldier) dying of frostbite just after a victory, and various birds gathering around “God’s table.”

The second image is an ironic allusion to several Biblical passages: the Phoenician woman’s saying to Jesus, “The dogs eat the crumbs falling from the master’s table,” the line from the sermon on the mount “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” and, from the same passage, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Dickinson’s treatment of these Biblical images is aloof and sardonic. It’s easy for God to keep “his oath to sparrows,” because they eat so little. They know how to starve. In making this point it is interesting how Dickinson starts with the smallest morsel and works her way up. Crumbs for “such little mouths,” cherries for robins and a golden breakfast for an eagle. The implication is that a man-sized hunger (and a hunger for things, like victory, that aren’t strictly physical) requires a God-sized largess. But this hunger, as in the case of the dying soldier for whom victory comes to late, is not satisfied by the drops and hints that fall from the “too economical” table of the world.

Of Man, By Nature

From God he’s a Back slider,
Of Ways, he loves the wider;
With Wickedness a Sider,
More Venom than a Spider.
In Sin he’s a Confider,
A Make-bate, and Divider;
Blind Reason is his Guider,
The Devil is his Rider.

–John Bunyan, 1686

COMMENTARY: Though John Bunyan is remembered mainly for his famous prose allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote poetry throughout his life and published a number of jaunty little collections. This poem is from his collection Country Rhymes For Children, a series of short moral poems often in the manner of object lessons. There are little meditations on frogs and hens and snails and tops with each used to teach a little homily, but, as the poems of other famous “morality” poets (Aesop, La Fontaine, etc) the punchline of the lesson is usually frolicsomeness of the language.

Grasse: The Olive Trees

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light
Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool
And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright
From too much wealth of water, so that the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And twisted trunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

–Richard Wilbur, 1948


Grasse is a commune in the south of France, just north of Cannes, which Wilbur likely visited when he was part of the force that liberated western Europe in World War II. Half quaint, half lavish (Grasse is known for its perfume factories), the commune features wild and cultivated olives, which, as anyone who’s seen them knows, are a gnarled, twisted, bitter-looking tree.

One of the themes that recurs in Wilbur’s poetry is the extent to the physical world is rich, intricate, and intoxicating, yet, at the same time, not enough. There’s always, mixed in with the “jammed excess,” a hint of something missing, a slight uncertainty, a pang or imperfection. The Grasse he paints is vivid and scenic–those rain-pocked stones, those flower smells, those statues–but the sweet excess is contradicted by the gaunt, famished, somber olives. More than botanical fact, their “great thirst” stands for the way the mind (spirit/soul) yearns for luxury but is never fully slaked by it–a paradox that hints that what it thirsts for isn’t in the the physical realm.