21 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/43

The Patient Witch

A lady called the Patient Witch
Lived near us long ago.
Our servants gave her off and on
A bit of coin or so,
To tell them what their dreams could mean,
And if their loves were true;
To study out their palms and say –
"A palace waits for you."
And then she always was polite,
And said, "How do you fare?
I hope your little girl is well,"
With a most pleasant air.
She mumbled much, we knew not what –
Each afternoon would wait
Beside the guide-post to the west
For some exalted fate.
She looked down every road as though
A stately coach was due,
To bear her home to somewhere else,
To folks she really knew.
"One evening," said a little boy,
The only one anigh,
"She told me pretty stories, and
She kissed my curls goodbye,
And turned into a swan and spread
Her white wings big and wide.
And flew and flew into the sky!
And I came home and cried."

Vachel Lindsay

I thought I'd head into the haunted weeks of late October with this strange and lovely poem by early twentieth-century American poet Vachel Lindsay. In some ways the title character is a traditional witch: a strange, mumbling, isolated old woman (this view is based on historical reality; see John Putnam Demos's Entertaining Satan). In other ways, she seems as much an oddity among witches as she is among her neighbors: for one thing, she's patient, rather than bad-tempered. She's polite, and has a pleasant air. Lindsay deftly sketches in the social setting: it's the (presumably less educated) servants who like to have their fortunes told; clearly there is no real palace waiting for them, but who knows what "a palace waits for you" might mean to a young servant? And they must be young, since they're asking about their loves and their futures. It's all harmless carnival fun. There's the air of a fairy tale about the whole thing; it happened "long ago" in a house with servants (the contemporary equivalent of the castles which she promises the servants after reading their palms). We hear about the "witch" only indirectly: from the servants, and later from a little boy. The somewhat archaic, childhood air is strengthened by Lindsay's use of traditional ballad meter (the steady 4-3-4-3 beat of the quatrains, with their regularly recurring rhymes).

Halfway through we switch from this scene of local color to something stranger. Right after hearing of the old woman's pleasant air, we hear she constantly mumbled, but no one really knows what she's saying – is it incoherent? unintelligible? are they just not listening closely enough? During actual witch-hunts, many real-life old women must have been done to death for their mysterious mumbling. Here it serves more to emphasize something solitary, isolated, not-understood about the old woman. The traditional region of witches is the cold North, for reasons that would probably take a Golden-Bough-sized volume to explain, but here she's waiting by a "guide-post to the west": a guide-post, as if she's seeking direction, and the west, associated with the forward movement of the sun, and so by implication with the future, but also with the setting of the sun, and so with night, darkness, silence, and death. A coach, stately or otherwise, would already have been an anachronism when this poem was written, so her awaiting one helps emphasize the old woman's dislocation from her surroundings. Then we have the poignant statement that her home is "somewhere else" – wherever that is, clearly it isn't where she is now, and no matter how much she is patronized by the servants, she is nowhere near "folks she really knew."

The only witness to her end is a little boy: is he the child of one of the servants? or the son of the people in the big house who speak of "our servants"? Is he the narrator, long ago, when he was a child? Is he just a boy who happened by? Is he old enough to distinguish fact from fairy tale? The narration of the witch's end by this uncertain story-teller takes on a dreamy distance because of our uncertainty about who this boy is and how accurate he is. Again, she is unlike traditional witches; she is affectionate rather than threatening to the child, entertaining him with pretty stories, and though she is linked to uncanny forces, they are less supernatural than Natural: there is no whiff of the sulfurous Satanic about her, or the black robes of the usual witch; instead, she turns into a white swan and flies away. Is this what she has been patiently awaiting? White is often associated with purity and innocence (not always in good ways; it can also imply cowardice, and inappropriate naivete). Swans are famously beautiful and graceful (I wonder if the shadow of Andersen's Ugly Duckling, who turned into a beautiful swan, went into this particular choice of bird?); they are also associated with death: according to legend, they sing only once in their lives, right before they die. Is her flight the child's version of her death? Or his vision of her rebirth? The odd misfit old woman, this strange resident stranger, redeems herself into something beautiful, magnificent, legendary. She flies away, free, and a lone little boy cries. How can those tears not alter the man he will become?

I took this poem from Poems Bewitched and Haunted, edited by the late John Hollander, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.


Unknown said...

This poem made me think of three neighbors, all different, all elderly, all living on different streets in my neighborhood. In all three cases I got to know them a little bit, and all showed signs of some dementia, but still were pleasant when I talked with them. In most cases our conversations started out being related to my dogs. In all three cases, one day I walked past their homes and they were gone. And while I was close enough to know them and have conversations, and learn some neighborhood history, and know their pets, I didn't know them well enough to know who they had in their lives to watch out for them, if anyone. So, in each case, one day, they were just gone. The thought of a swan taking them away to the place where the people that really knew them lived, is such a lovely thought, compared to what probably really happened to them.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes. But I have to point out that in this poem a swan does not take the patient witch away: she turns into a swan and flies away by herself.