16 May 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/20

Some Woman to Some Man

We might have loved each other after all,
Have lived and learned together! Yet I doubt it;
You asked, I think, too great a sacrifice,
Or else, perhaps, I rate myself too dear.
Whichever way the difference lies between us,
Would common cares have helped to lessen it,
A common interest, and a common lot?
Who knows indeed? We choose our path, and then
Stand looking back and sighing at our choice,
And say: "Perhaps the other road had lead
To fruitful valleys dozing in the sun."
Perhaps – perhaps – but all things are perhaps,
And either way there lies a doubt, you know.
We've but one life to live, and fifty ways
To live it in, and little time to choose
The one in fifty that will suit us best,
And so the end is, that we part, and say:
"We might have loved each other after all!"

Edith Wharton

Here's another poem by a writer not usually thought of as a poet, though in this monologue Edith Wharton displays a number of characteristics – psychological exploration, dramatic tension, an interest in prevailing social currents – that stood her in good stead in her novels.

Although this poem isn't particularly comic, I'll say that the title made me chuckle – there's something so offhand about it, casual to the point of being dismissive ("Who was that?" "Oh, I dunno – some woman / some guy"). The title positions us between an archetypal and universal The Woman to The Man (or Woman to Man) and the sharper singularity of A Woman to A Man; some indicates a certain anonymity, a certain variance from mainstream society (this is not someone socially notable enough to be defined by name or position), a certain generic quality, though not one widespread enough to be considered universal. But though it is not universal, it is common enough, as some also indicates, to apply to a group, a social subset – this 1878 poem perhaps gives voice to the "New Woman" of the time.

In the late nineteenth century, the "New Woman" label was applied to women who valued education, self-determination, independence, and social and professional ties and contributions that went beyond the domestic. (Of course there had always been such women, but they were now given a sociological label and therefore some cultural presence as a group, rather than as individuals.) These were mostly fairly well-off middle-class women: the very wealthy already had some independence, and the poor had too little. Such a status would fit the speaker of Wharton's poem: not a grand aristocrat, but not quite financially desperate, either: she can reject what is presumably an offer of marriage without panicking about what this means for her economically. Her struggles are emotional rather than financial. She clearly likes this man, but perhaps not quite enough to give up her independence and settle into the expectations of domesticity. She is a thinking as well as feeling person, old enough to put love and life in some perspective.

There is affection and intimacy here – you know at the end of line 13 masterfully makes us see these lines as part of a conversation, not a one-sided speech, and suggests that the man shares some of her views, though maybe not enough, and that they have discussed these philosophical matters before. There is lightness here, but also rue, and potential regret, and some humor; some pride (You asked, I think, too great a sacrifice) and some uncertainty (Or else, perhaps, I rate myself too dear) – but these emotions are intermingled and fleeting; I think in the line about his asking too much indicates not so much uncertainty as an appealing modesty and circumspection in the speaker's judgments, but also a sense that she rightly values her own opinion and will stick by it – perhaps it is only her opinion that he asks too much, but that is enough for her to proceed, for as she tells us, all things are perhaps. A sense of contingency underlies her remarks, and the emotions (and potential emotions, the possible future regrets) are always ambivalently present. It would be fascinating to give these lines to four or five actresses, send them off separately, and see how they interpret the tone(s) of these lines.

This is from Edith Wharton: Selected Poems, edited by Louis Auchincloss for the American Poets Project in the Library of America. (I think that in line 10 that should be "had led" rather than "had lead".)

No comments: