26 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/4

Upon Her Play Being Returned to Her, Stained with Claret

Welcome, dear wanderer, once more!
     Thrice welcome to thy native cell!
Within this peaceful humble door
     Let thou and I contented dwell!

But say, O whither hast thou ranged?
     Why dost thou blush a crimson hue?
Thy fair complexion's greatly changed;
     Why, I can scare believe 'tis you.

Then tell, my son, O tell me, where
     Didst thou contract this sottish dye?
You kept ill company, I fear,
     When distant from your parent's eye.

Was it for this, O graceless child!
     Was it for this you learned to spell?
Thy face and credit both are spoiled;
     Go drown thyself in yonder well.

I wonder how thy time was spent:
     No news, alas, hast thou to bring?
Hast thou not climbed the Monument?
     Nor seen the lions, nor the King?

But now I'll keep you here secure:
     No more you view the smoky sky;
The Court was never made, I'm sure,
     For idiots like thee and I.

Mary Leapor

Here is a witty and poignant poem from the eighteenth-century on a theme still relevant: an author's reaction to a rejected submission. Leapor was born in a lower class (her father was a gardener) and she worked as a serving maid before her death from measles at the age of 24. Some of her employers encouraged her writing and others did not; there are stories (perhaps meant to be comic but to me touching) of her being dismissed from jobs because dinner would scorch while she was busy writing (similar stories bedevil the biographies of any writer who isn't independently wealthy). She wrote poetry and also, no doubt with the hope of improving her financial lot, a blank-verse tragedy, which was rejected by theaters in London, though her poems were eventually published.

The claret staining the returned pages is a red wine made in Bordeaux; the implication is that it's a fancy import, the sort of thing you would casually or perhaps ostentatiously drink (and maybe not even care about spilling) if you lived in a sophisticated and heedless metropolis like London. It's not the honest ale you'd get in the simple countryside. Leapor addresses her manuscript as if it were a son who has ventured forth from his small village in his young manhood and now returns, probably sadder and one hopes wiser, after his encounter with the wider world. She welcomes the "dear wanderer" back to his native place, which is peaceful and humble, and where they may dwell in contentment.

Then, after the mother's first burst of joy at her manuscript's/child's return, she takes a closer, more suspicious look at the reddened pages: why is he blushing? Where has he been, and what (or whom) has he done? She fears that once out of her overseeing, he has kept bad company, acquiring permanent damage from alcohol: a sottish dye. She angrily rebukes him, mentioning the difficulty in raising him: "Was it for this you learned to spell?" – a clever reminder that her "son" is actually a written manuscript. In her disappointment and anger, she suggests tossing it down the well (I wonder if there's a suggestion here of using the manuscript as toilet paper? though if they use water from that well I hope they're not throwing the soiled papers down there).

Outburst over, she starts to wonder about the marvels, far beyond her experience, this errant child might have seen: how odd to think that your writing may have traveled much further than you ever will, and been understood in ways foreign to your understanding. But a manuscript, unlike a child, cannot speak: "No news, alas, hast thou to bring?" The Monument referred to is the large Doric column commemorating the 1666 Great Fire of London; it was designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and opened in 1677, about seventy years before this poem was written. You could (and still can) walk up its interior staircase, though the panoramic elevated view would have been much more of a startling and beautiful novelty then than it is in our cities, which were transformed by the twentieth-century invention of the elevator. Lions would also have been a striking novelty; though familiar images, actual lions would obviously not be wandering the English countryside, and public zoos had not been conceived of yet (the London zoo, one of the earliest, did not open until 1828). The lions belonged to the royal menagerie, and were kept in the Tower of London. Perhaps the thought of the "king of beasts" and the royal menagerie leads to the question about seeing the King: because of course if you're in the same city, you could run into him, just the way you would in a small country village.

Having passed through joy, anger, and curiosity, the speaker is content to avoid the heady and dangerous atmosphere (the smoky sky) of the City; with some asperity she notes that the Court was no doubt not intended for "idiots" like them: who knows why this venture did not turn out? She returns to regular village life with the rejected child of her imagination.

I took this from Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale.

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