Saturday, June 18, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "Songs of John Oland"

According to the editor’s note, many poems of this privately printed collection (1911) were reissued in later volumes. This selection of 14 poems already presents the major themes, which recur in Wickham’s writings. The conflict between men and women is depicted in “Song of the Low-Caste Wife,” “Surrender,” “Divorce,” and “All Men to Women.” The ambition to be a writer appears in “Illusion,” “The Artist’s Life,” and “Inspiration.” The post-Darwin loss of religious faith inspires the poems “The Call for Faith,” “The Song of the Child,” and “The Sinner.” Finally, the theme of motherhood is expressed in “The Song of the Mother,” “The Town Dirge” (about the death of a poor couple’s child), “Outline,” and, most tenderly, in “Song to the Young John,” Wickham’s firstborn.

The poems in this first collection, as indicated in the repetition of “song” in many of their titles, are stirringly lyrical. “Illusion,” the best of the short lyrics, begins with gigantic confidence but soon discovers, by the end of the first stanza, the boundless limits of the world:

I who am great stalk above trees,
And come upon the world from heights.
I kick aside the little boxes of straight built towns,
Those great coveted houses!
Extend my arms to touch the round horizon,
and find the zenith just beyond my fingers.

The thought in the lyrics is not very complex or subtle. The more interesting poems are those that fuse more than a single thematic concern. “The Song of the Mother,” for instance, is about both motherhood and artistic ambition. The speaker warns would-be female poets to take heed of great female poets of the past, who gave up having children in order to produce great poetry, and now “Each rocks herself in mute grief,/ Seeing the vision of the unborn.” In contrast, the speaker hears herself singing a great song “For my children come out to greet me.” Having children, in Wickham’s poem, inspires the making of poems, and does not displace it.

The same faith undergirds the low-caste wife’s reproach of her king-husband in her “Song.” The king’s highborn people have turned merely conservative. They think only of “old victories” and lose “the lust of conquest.” The low-caste wife, however, comes from a people who “sang the song of exile in low places,” and so are “hungry from oppression.” Like her people, the wife is “full of lust”:

Give me for all old things that greatest glory
A little growth.

She has given sons to the king who will give their father the “king-descended” vision that he has lost.

Besides the tones of confidence and reproach, the poems sound other, darker, notes. In “Divorce,” the speaker whose duty is to “nurse” the fire in the house hears a voice from the dark heights calling her. From the hills come the exhilarating martial sounds of drums, and marching men, and a hero’s call. But the speaker can only beg an unnamed someone to let her leave the house. The second stanza goes:

Spirits that ride the sweeping blast,
Frozen in rigid tenderness,
Wait! for I leave the fire at last
My little-love’s warm loneliness.
I smother in the house in the valley below,
Let me out to the night, let me go, let me go.

“My little-love’s warm loneliness” is a neat turn of phrase to describe an isolating marriage. I admire how the anapests in the penultimate line drag the line almost to a halt before the rapid succession of stresses in the last line bangs desperately on the door.


  1. I like, too, how the reps in that last line can be read as either rising with increasing demand and desperation or falling with increasing despair.

  2. That last strophe you quoted is the product of a perfectly gorgeous sense of rhythm.

    I am ambivalent about the warning in "The Song of the Mother"; I like the idea of motherhood as a valuable part of the creative enterprise, but am really sick of hearing that women are going to be Deeply Sorry if they don't have babies. Even from dead people (of whom one has to be particularly forgiving, owing to their advanced age). Actually, this reminds me of something I liked about the title poem in the book "A Walk in Victoria's Secret": it was a description of a kind of femininity that isn't universal, told in a way that doesn't try to make it universal.

  3. Laurie,

    What you said is true, but lacking the voice of the poet herself, the reps on the page, accompanied by exclamation points, seem to call for an increasing volume.

    I thought Anna Wickham would get your goat. I've got to think further about a Kind Of Femininity That Isn't Universal. It's, er, very postmodern, isn't it?

  4. Ha! I got to this party a little late. :) See my comments on Jee's next post. This should be fun as the month progresses...

  5. Oh, Jee, you know entirely too well where my goat is kept.

    Here's a shot at rephrasing the postmodern idea: Wickham thinks it's important to her, as a woman, to have children. Kate Daniels thinks it's important to her, as a woman, to take pleasure in the beauty of her breasts. On the one hand, who am I to contradict them? I'm no expert on it means to be a woman. On the other hand, they don't speak for me, so I either have to opt out of being a woman, or I have to say that they're right about one kind of woman but not all. It doesn't look so easy to opt out of being a woman. Wickham just decides that various authors count as women in her sense without apparently consulting them about it.

    Now I've either beaten the dead horse to a pulp or totally confused everybody.

    Tangentially relevant webcomic.