Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": XII

I am reading Jennifer Vaughan Jones's biography of Anna Wickham alongside the poems. Quite horrified to learn that her husband committed her to a mental asylum for no reason other than the suspicion of an illicit liaison, her emotional outbursts and her stubborn desire to write poetry. In one of these outbursts, from the garden, Anna had shouted at Patrick her poem "Nervous Prostration," which begins:

I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two,
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don't know what to do!
It isn't good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen's books
And pray for the end of life...

Little wonder that Patrick was angered by Anna's poetry, an anger easily transmuted into a "concern" for Anna's sanity. Though Anna suffered much fear and many indignities in Brooke House, the asylum, she secretly carried out of it at the end of her time there 80 poems she had written. These were to form the core of the collection "The Contemplative Quarry," published by Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, who became a staunch supporter of Anna's poetry.

Jones's biography discovered an intriguing link between Monro and Brooke House. The mental asylum, a long-established and well-run concern, was one of the sources of Monro's income, and so gave him the financial independence to promote the profitless business of poetry. Jones could not determine if Monro knew of Anna when she was in Brooke House. The doctor who gave Anna paper to write her poems could have told Monro of his unusual patient, knowing Monro's interest in poetry, but nothing can be proven. What is clear is the irony that the man who owned the mental asylum also owned the press and the bookstore.

"XII The Affinity" is about Anna's marriage to Patrick, but in at least one stanza it gains additional resonance when Monro is brought into the picture. The poem begins with great bitterness:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

The compulsion in "I have to" is both external and internal, or, more accurate, external pressure changed into internal willfulness. "Ordered" is sharp choice of word, for it connotes not just "orderly" (as in the regimentation of a mental asylum) but also "being ordered around." "Very hungry" and "very lonely," two different conditions, can be read as appositives for each other, due to the missing "and." I find the stark language utterly compelling. The same language animates the rest of the poem:

It is sad for Feminism, but still clear
That man, more often than woman, is a pioneer.
If I would confide a new thought,
First to a man must it be brought.

These lines make me think of Harold Monro as well as Patrick Hepburn, her husband. Does Anna have Monro, her publisher and supporter, in mind too?

The poem goes on to argue in crystal-cut quatrains that "the true male never yet walked/ Who liked to listen when his mate talked," and so the speaker-wife has learned from "a wealth of living" that she "must be silent, if [she] would be loved."

The poem turns at this point, for it realizes that female silence is a potential source of strength: it forces her to do all her thinking "by stealth," like the early Christians who pray secretly in the catacombs. If she were allowed to speak, "the things [she] spoke/ Would fill the air a while, and clear like smoke." Forbidden to speak, she has to write down her thoughts and so she can "show them to the Town," and not just to a husband, and so she can "re-read" her own thoughts in the future. I find immensely moving the idea that writing, for this woman, is not just for a public audience, but also for her private self.

The poem ends by repeating the opening tercet, which is a line shorter than the quatrains in the poem's body, and so enacts the diminishment that the stanza describes:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

I said "diminishment," but Anna Wickham made much of little.


  1. Very compelling work you present here. Sad and powerful stuff. She must have been a very strong and resourceful woman, indeed. And wise.

  2. Its fascinating how she uses the constraints of form to express such a powerful, tight anger. I can see why you are interested in her work.