01 December 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/49

To Mrs. K_______, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! –
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life's calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!

Helen Maria Williams

I thought I'd segue from Thanksgiving to Christmas with a poem about that essential holiday ingredient: food. Few things summon up remembrance of holidays past like the foods we always eat on those special days. In this case, the memorable item is an English Christmas plum-cake, which is what we also often call a plum-pudding (in British English, pudding covers a much broader range of desserts than in America, where it refers only to a type of creamy custard). It's a heavy cake, baked by steaming, traditionally rich in suet and filled with various dried fruits, like raisins and prunes (plum used to cover a broader range of fruits than what we think of when we hear the word). Perhaps it was the fruits filling the cake that inspired the sort of odd use of cells in line 4: inset in the dark batter, they may have looked in their abundance like the cells that held monks (or prisoners), or even like the cells that make up a honeycomb. The biological meaning might also apply, since Robert Hooke applied the name in 1665, and as you can probably tell from the style, this poem is late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. (Of course, Williams may simply have needed a rhyme for dwells, which caused her to get metaphorical.)

Her recovery of the past through a familiar food anticipates by about a century another Parisian, who tasted a madeleine dipped in a lime-flower infusion and was thereby transported back to his childhood in Combray. In this case she opens the package from her friend and the sight and smell (the odorous cells) of the cake transport her back in time and place: crowding thoughts wake in her; perhaps crowd also brings with it the sense of large numbers of people she used to know. Williams was separated from many of them by more than distance: a political radical and associate of thinkers like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, she moved to France during the Revolution (not without danger to herself; though she supported the Revolution's radical goals, she was imprisoned under Robespierre) and lived abroad most of the rest of her life (which ended in 1827). She also had a long relationship (without marriage) with a radical named John Hartford Stone, who left his wife for her. The combination of what was seen as an irregular union with her radical politics alienated many former friends and supporters in England, particularly as the situation in France grew increasingly violent and anarchic, and as it became clear that the wars on the continent would soon involve the British. So the present of a cake meant more than simply a tasty holiday treat: it was a sign of unalienated love and affection when many others had fallen away.

No wonder she finds the cake magical, and wonders if there is a small magician bound / encrusted in its snowy round. That's a delightful image, and makes the cake seem like a small snow-capped mountain range (encrusted can mean covered with a hard surface layer, as of dirt, though there's obviously also a reference to the cake's crust). I like that the magician is bound; it's like something out of a fairytale – the enchanter enchanted – and you feel that he is thereby under control; magic permeates this cake that conjures up visions of happier times and also memories of sorrows, but the magic is not going to get out of hand and become destructive. She finds the cake mysterious in its power, and refers to its folds: a fold can mean an undulation or gentle curve, usually of the earth, but it also is a way of mixing ingredients in cooking; so, as with encrusted, she's punning on the cake as a little world and also reminding us that it's a cake.

Initially she is filled with questions and wonderment at the Christmas cake's strange, unexpected power to transport her back in time and place; then she moves to a contemplation of that past, reflecting that it was a happier, more hopeful time. Then she thinks of sorrows and lost friends (though she seems to be enjoying a pleasing melancholy rather than feeling distraught: tears wake in her, as thoughts did earlier, but these are tears she love[s] to shed). She moves to a long encomium to the friend who sent her the thoughtful gift. I have to say I really love For she recalls the artless smile / Of nymphs that deck my native isle: to me those lines seem echt eighteen-century, and if (the Muses forbid!) all eighteenth-century British poetry were destroyed, you could probably recreate a substantial portion of it with the lyric DNA found in them. For someone who lived such an uncompromising and radical life herself, Williams is almost surprisingly rhapsodic over the tender, modest grace of traditional feminine domestic virtues. She ends with the thought that the true sustenance, the true rich feast, comes not so much from the Christmas cake itself as from the dear friendship it represents.

Usually I link to the book from which I took the poem (hoping some reader might be inspired to make a purchase), but in this case, though I have shelves and shelves of poetry books, they do not contain this poem: I found it on-line. So this is a good chance to mention a terrific resource: the Poetry Foundation website. They have a wide and deep collection of verse, along with detailed biographies of the poets and many interesting articles. It's a great site to keep in mind when you're bored at work and cannot take another minute of the usual social media or news sites, not that I would know anything about that of course. There does not seem to be a handy modern edition of Williams's poetry, but some of her other poems can be found in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: an Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale. The biographical information I've included here comes from the headnote to Lonsdale's selection of her work. If you enjoyed this poem, you'd probably enjoy that whole anthology – I just want people to buy books! Remember that poetry makes a great gift! Almost as great as an English Christmas plum-cake!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the notes. When I first read it, despite how easy the words were to read because of the rhythm and rhyming, I didn't understand a lot of it, except I thought of the madeleine also. Once I knew she was living abroad, it all made sense, and anyone who has ever been homesick can relate to it.

I like how she never even mentions tasting the cake. All it takes to conjure up so much is the sight of it, and maybe the smell (but at this point the smell may also be a memory, since she hasn't opened the "odorous cells.").