12 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/41

The Parklands

(originally entitled Pour Envoyer à Sir Oliver Lodge)

Through the Parklands, through the Parklands
Of the wild and misty north,
Walked a babe of seven summers
In a maze of infant wrath.

And I wondered and I murmured
And I stayed his restless pace
With a courteous eye I held him
In that unfrequented place.

Questioning I drew him to me
Touched him not but with an eye
Full of awful adult power
Challenged every infant sigh.

"Of what race and of what lineage,"
Questioning I held him there,
"Art thou, boy?" He answered nothing
Only stood in icy stare.

Blue his eyes, his hair a flaxen
White fell gently on the breeze,
White his hair as straw and blue
His eyes as distant summer seas.

Steadfastly I gazed upon him
Gazed upon that infant face
Till the parted lips gave utterance
And he spake in measured pace:

"All abandoned are my father's
Parklands, and my mother's room
Houses but the subtle spider
Busy at her spinning loom.

"Dead my father, dead my mother,
Dead their son, their only child."
"How is this when thou art living
Foolish boy, in wrath beguiled?"

"Ask me not," he said, and moving
Passed into the distance dim.
High the sun stood in the heavens,
But no shadow followed him.

Stevie Smith

Pour envoyer à Sir Oliver Lodge means to be sent to Sir Oliver Lodge, who was an English physicist and also President for several years of the Society for Psychical Research. He lived from 1851 to 1940. He saw no contradiction between his scientific studies and his interest in Spiritualism; in fact it was his work on electro-magnetic radiation that bolstered his belief that a spirit world existed in a light-related ether that filled the universe (this theory on the nature of light and the universe was undermined by twentieth-century developments in physics). Lodge was drawn to Spiritualism even before his son was killed in World War I, though after the war such deaths led many parents and grieving friends to try contacting the dead through seances.

Sir Oliver Lodge is one of those fascinating odd characters whose fame gradually vanishes with time, so I enjoyed looking up information on him, but I also wish Smith had deleted the reference. It tips her hand on what's really going on in this odd encounter; beneath the spooky trappings there is a weirdly comic clash between an assertive and cluelessly rational adult and a mysterious child.

The spooky trappings I mentioned start with the poem's form: it's a ballad, a form associated with ancient, often anonymous, tales, frequently dealing with murder and the uncanny. Ballads are typically quatrains with a 4-3-4-3 beat, rhyming abcb, which is what we find in this poem. Smith furthers the association by using archaic language, though some of these terms might also be dialect current in the rural north: thee and thou, babe of seven summers, stay meaning to halt, and race and lineage to mean parentage. North itself is a direction traditionally associated with witches and Satan, and the poet emphasizes the connection with the supernatural by calling it the wild and misty North. Parklands is a fairly common English name for fields and woods surrounding an aristocratic estate, lending a touch of Gothic romance to the setting of this poem. Ballads often use repetitive language, and Smith starts us off with Through the Parklands, through the Parklands and later gives us Questioning I drew him to me and Questioning I held him there as well as I gazed upon him / Gazed upon that infant face and also Dead my father, dead my mother, / Dead their son among other examples.

The first stanza immediately sets the stage and introduces the strange child: only seven, but wandering alone through the neglected parklands, in a maze of infant wrath – that's such a great line! Anyone who's spent any time with children will have seen such outwardly inexplicable, inwardly revolving anger – I remember being in such states myself. There's something a bit comic about this child stalking about, stewing in his own juices, in the way babies have of sometimes looking like Winston Churchill, but there is also something deeply touching in the image of this troubled child; maze suggests that he is trapped inside what seems like an endless series of false starts and wrong turns; maze might also bring to mind the Labyrinth (though there are technical distinctions between the two types of traps), which might suggest a monster lurking at the center.

The fifth stanza, the description of the boy, is one of those pauses in the action that intensifies suspense. It also heightens the oddness of the child, as even the resolutely forthright and down-to-earth speaker is struck by something strange in his appearance. His hair is pale as straw or flax, his eyes as intensely blue as "distant summer [and therefore presumably cloudless and clear] seas". These comparisons link him to the vast natural world, rather than to any human setting. Even his stare is icy (another reminder of the wild and misty north). The language here, too, uses the repetition characteristic of ballads.

The narrator is amusingly full of herself, feeling free to stop the child because she wonders at his restless pace, conscious of her courteous eye despite her awful [in the sense of awe-inspiring] adult power, which allows her to challenge a total stranger merely because he is a child whose behavior she finds peculiar. She is aware enough of the proprieties, however, so that she does not touch him (and of course, touching him would reveal his corporeal state). The boy, too, has been brought up in a certain way, and responds to her questions in measured pace (perhaps contrasted to the restless pace of his walk). She gazes upon him steadfastly until she receives an answer, which she will promptly reject as nonsensical. You feel that steadfast gazing at people is pretty much how she manages her social relations.

He tells her that his father's estate is abandoned, and his mother's rooms are empty except for the spiders that move in when housekeeping lags (the spider busy at her spinning loom nicely evokes a world of fairy tales, and the mysterious enchantments that often involve spinning wheels). Then, perhaps understanding the type to whom he is speaking, he spells out the situation explicitly: Dead my father, dead my mother / Dead their son, their only child. Yet our narrator persists in her comically dense mode: How is this when thou art living / Foolish boy, in wrath beguiled? She refers back to the infant wrath that led her to stop him in the first place. Beguiled suggests that he has been charmed or enchanted by wrath – and perhaps he has been, though not in the way she means. She suggests that his anger has led him to state something foolish and wrong. But perhaps his wrath is what moved his spirit to walk his father's abandoned lands (we are given no information on how, when, or why the family perished, which increases the aura of mystery around the spectral boy).

The imperious child refuses to enlighten her further (and what more can he say than what he's already said?). He passes into the distance dim, a nicely alliterative way of suggesting a ghostly vanishing. At the very end comes the kicker: the sun is high in the sky, but the boy casts no shadow. The poem ends with a spectral chill in the bright sunlight: is this enough to make even our narrator realize what she has been speaking to?

This is from the Collected Poems of Stevie Smith. I first heard of Smith when I went to see Stevie, an interesting movie about the poet, which I was drawn to mostly because Glenda Jackson was the star. It was released in 1978 , seven years after the writer's death. Unfortunately it seems to be currently unavailable. One of my minor goals with this series has been to post something by Smith that is not Not Waving But Drowning, easily her most famous poem, so I can cross that one off the list.

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