Sunday, June 19, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": "I Amourette"

The poems in Wickham’s second book (1915) are numbered as well as titled, giving the appearance of a sequence. Though the poems focus on recurring themes, they are written in different stanzaic forms, most often as a single stanza. They often rhyme in couplets too. This marriage of strict numbering and varied forms creates an impression of great spontaneity.

“I Amourette” is a dialogue between the Woman and the Philosopher. Unusual to the dialogue form is a kind of prelude in which the two speakers talk to themselves about the other before they join in “argument.” The Woman asks herself how she can please man best. Two options present themselves: “Shall I be silent? Shall I speak?” The Philosopher does not question himself but rather questions whether a woman can be wise when “her philosophy is but a lure.” The Philosopher thus sees wisdom as antithetical to love, or, more generally, feeling. He does not want his wisdom to fall to the “arsenal of charm” and the “ammunition of her thought.”

Desiring the “thrilling combat of the wit,” the Woman confesses to the Philosopher in sadomasochistic terms that she takes “strange delight” in being “beaten,” this right at the start of their argument. He rightly identifies her as a “sensualist” and kisses her. She teases him by calling his forwardness at their first meeting “husbandry,” a loaded word. She promises him that from this “first pleasure” that he “sows” in her, she has the power to raise a shady grove for him. It is interesting here that the poet assigns masculine imagery to the Woman as well as the Philosopher.

Charmed by her answer, the Philosopher promises to return another night. The Woman concludes the dialogue with a complicated wish:

Dreams, dreams, stay with me till I sleep,
Then let oblivion steep
My senses in forgetfulness,
That when I wake, I may forget my loneliness.

Does “dreams” refer to the dream of the philosopher’s return or does it indicate that the charmed philosopher was a dream, an impossibility? It is disturbing to describe sleep as “oblivion,” especially in the context of a philosophical dialogue. Finally, does she forget her loneliness when she wakes because she has forgotten the lover during her sleep? If so, she does not seem to have gained her objective at the start of the poem. Is she winner or loser at the end? Wiser or foolish?

Despite the (perhaps unintended) ambiguities, what is clear is the speaker’s intellectual and emotional isolation. She lacks a Philosopher-lover. By referring to her “senses,” she justifies the Philosopher’s description of her as a “sensualist,” and so perhaps feels even more acutely the absence of a man who understands her.


  1. This sounds really fascinating Jee. I like the tension being orchestrated, by your description it is almost like flirting turned into a poetic form. For a minute when the Philosopher questions whether a woman can be wise when “her philosophy is but a lure” I thought maybe he was accusing her of being a dilettante. But then it sounds like he wants to protect himself too (or at least his wisdom from the “arsenal of charm” and the “ammunition of her thought”). This give me the feeling he is taking her seriously.

    Thanks for your synopsis and reflections on this. I think the way you are attuned to her fantasy of a philosopher lover stemming from 'the absence of a man who understands her' is an interesting conundrum. Myself, I see it as an easy traditional assumption that a man can freely seek (and find without much trouble) friends, a wife, a lover and/or a partner to fill that purpose. He will find companions and they might be of either gender, it's just that there is typically no special credential attached that would bring the hoped for understanding.

    Maybe I am oversimplifying. I dunno. The feminist in me has been showing up lately and I am flipping gender roles right and left and just for the fun of it. Thought it was worth a mention.

  2. Check it out: the full text is online. (It appears to be automatically scanned, so there are some spectacular typos--TV/HAT indeed!--but it's basically readable.)

    The man's question about the woman's wisdom strikes me as ambiguous; he actually asks how the woman can be wise "when her philosophy is but a lure". He might be questioning whether she can be wise, but he might also be expressing puzzlement over her evident wisdom. "disregard her wit" is likewise ambiguous: does that mean he doesn't believe in her wit, or that he believes in it but is just more interested in her mouth and her hair.

    This one resonated with me very much. These lines get it exactly right:

    More than love, and more than other pleasure
    I desire thrilling combat of the wit.

    I too see a conflict between the desire for a male partner who's an intellectual equal, and the fear of not being taken seriously by men when they beat me in argument, at least once sex is part of the equation. (Somebody who's your equal is going to come out ahead some of the time.) I'd couch it more in terms of "respect" than "understanding".

    "(Here follows an argument)" was a little disappointing, I thought. You mean I don't get a philosophical dialogue to go with my dramatic dialogue?

  3. After reading the whole thing I want to share my take on several points. First, I don't think she asks for a beating, I think he just won whatever argument is referred to parenthetically and she is admitting defeat by saying "I am beaten so tonight." Second, I don't think she actually lets him kiss her. I think she stops him, not out of chastity but in order to turn the question of his advance into a philosophical dialogue of her own:

    What is your need to eat the seed.
    When growth might be so sweet ?

    She wins her point in two ways. She refuses him the chance to be the one in charge while also letting him save face. She lets him know he has sown a seed, but that it is her power that can bring him an entire grove (kindness and love) instead of just one tree (I this a phallic tree?). At any rate, she wins her point, makes herself more attractive to him on an intellectual level (she seems to already have him on the physical) and she gets him to want to come back for more.

    Woman: 1
    Philosopher: 1

    So I think they initially approach each other with a lot of assumptions and doubts, but they leave feeling like they met their match.

    I also think her dreams before sleep are her way of reveling in herself, in her own sensuality, but also not wanting to let her own desire get the best of her. It's her senses that she hopes to steep in oblivion, because she hopes she can stay strong and control herself. To "end" her loneliness, she needs him as a true companion, and if she allows him to become a fling, she risks losing the larger prize.

    Then again, I am terminally ill with optimism. But then again, this is one cool ass poem. It seems so much is possible in there!

  4. Thanks, Janelo and Biped, for your detailed responses. I am running out of time this morning, but will try to take up your points on another day.


  5. Hi again Jee, not to beat the beating to death, but I re-read what you wrote

    Desiring the “thrilling combat of the
    wit,” the Woman confesses to the
    Philosopher in sadomasochistic terms
    that she takes “strange delight” in
    being “beaten,”

    and now I see how you were couching that in terms of her being coy, where I thought you were suggesting she was being direct in some sort of a request to bust out the whips! So I just wanted to clarify that.