This is a disturbing poem, not least because the speaker, who we assume to be the ‘farmer’ narrates the story of the unfortunate’bride.’ I say unfortunate as she has no wish to be married to the farmer, it seems to have been an ‘arranged marriage’ and her fear of sex is vividly displayed in the poem. Yet despite her fear and probable repulsion, the farmer spends all the poem yearning for his poor bride who tries at least once to run away. The poem is entirely from the viewpoint of the farmer, it is his voice and monologue we hear throughout the poem and the bride remains silenced throughout. This uneasy use of the dramatic monologue ironically makes the bride more the elusive, tragic object than ever, for she is trapped both within the farmer’s home as well as within the poem itself. Her voice is actually never heard-she is constructed, ‘made up’ by the man she is trying to escape. She is a figure or ‘creature’ hunted and spectated upon, even by the reader: owned by a male whose affection seems sexually predatory and yet desperate. It is hard to decide whether the language the speaker uses is designed to delude himself or others that he does have affection fro the girl bride. Yet there are moments when this affectionate mask slips and I feel the sexual urgency leaks too prominently into the poem and reveals the ‘real’ intentions of the speaker.
Who would want to live in this rural community? The countryside seems a place of hard work, loneliness, sexual longing and compromise. For the bride, it is claustrophobic and confining. It fails to offer her any support in her rejection of the marriage and even colludes with the speaker’s desire for ownership and sexual possession.
The rustic voice of the farmer gives him a real identity for his listeners and we are made aware of his watchful fascination with this ‘too young’ girl, through the natural images he uses to convey her beauty, youth and vulnerability. It is as if we are confidantes, listening to the tale of his unhappy marriage and left to judge who seems most unfortunate. The farmer in this way is ‘on trial’ by his readers and listeners, just as we process our judgements throughout Priestley’s remarkable play, An Inspector Calls. However unlike the play, the verdict we may reach about the farmer and his bride is complex though I do feel my final sympathy must remain with the fragile bride, the ‘fay’, ‘hare’ and ‘mouse’ of the tale. For she has had her marriage arranged, way before she seems mature enough to take on wifely duties and her terror of sex makes the farmer’s pursuit of her, predatory and dominating.
Three summer’s since I chose a maid,
Too young may be – but more’s to do
At harvest time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman-
More like a little frightened fay.
One night, in the fall, she runned away.
The farmer is expressing in his rural voice, the time scale of his marriage to the child bride, the virgin or ‘maid.’ The musing ‘too young may be-’ qualifies and then attempts to justify his choice. we do wonder how young the ‘maid’ may actually be and of course how old the farmer with his hasty lust and longing may actually be. This is not the opening to Marvell’s arch poem, ‘To his Coy mistress‘ where courtship is leisurely and can go on and on, time being no apparent object. In Mew’s poem, this is pragmatic love. The farmer wants a worker to assist him on his his small holding, and also to provide sexual release in his bed. The complete absence of her agreement to this need, seems to make their marriage a form of slavery and significantly the whole community seem to collude with her enslavement.
The ‘smile’ she had before the marriage disappears when they are ‘wed’ and it is ironic that she runs away ‘one night’ presumably to escape the farmer’s sexual needs and advances. This poem does communicate a very real sense of entrapment and claustrophobia. She turns away from her husband and being ‘human’ and a ‘woman’ in his eyes. The heavy, yearning tone of the farmer’s voice is suggestive of cloying sexual desire, he owns her in a sense, yet she eludes him, preferring the freedom and innocence of the outdoors rather being indoors with him. Perhaps her innocence perversely increases his longing and this too has a disturbing effect upon the reader. The farmer does not accept or accept her evident revulsion of any sexual relations with him.
“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her fast.
The farmer’s neighbours spot her ‘Out ‘mong sheep’ and this voyeuristic information leads to her being ‘chased’ as if she is escaping prey ‘across the down’ an image that reminds the reader of a blighted fox or hare. The presence of the ’lanterns’ too adds malignant gloom to this whole spectacle of a child bride being returned to the arranged marriage she hates. The inappropriate even Gothic use of the word ‘home’ ironises the disjunction/difference between the bride’s perspective and that of the farmer’s. ‘Home’ is her prison, her nightmare place, where she feels threatened and violated by the farmer’s sexual advances. The farmer’s relief to have her home is again ironic as he has no guilt or sensitivity to the girl’s terror. ‘And turned the key upon her fast.’ This is imprisonment. She is ensnared for his own ends and needs. She is caught and looked away again against her will. The historical timing of the poem surely suggests women in rural communities such as this had very few rights. They were commodities to be exploited by men, with the collusion of the community, in any ways that suited these patriachal structures.
She does the work about the house,
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk keep away.
“Not near, Not near,” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
The poem gives the girl a fairy tale aspect, not unlike Snow White as she seems most happy playing with other small, vulnerable fellow creatures; they are in harmony and enjoy rapport, unlike the farmer and his bride. ‘Men-folk’ alarm her. They represent the threat of sex and she cowers at their approach. ‘Not near’.He yes plead. The ‘women’ report( again how creepy and insidious that the girl’s terror is observed and reported on) of the girl’s natural rapport with animals,who are also ironically locked up by men ‘in stall.’ It is as if she is more at home with the natural animal world because they are all similar and vulnerable. The girl speaks rarely again suggesting her awkwardness near the farmer and men as well as her more natural identity as an animal, who are ironically still under government of men, though are free from their sexual expectations.
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me ?
The farmer’s voice has an appreciation of the delicacy, even transience of the girl’s beauty. The preponderance of vowel sounds give a hushed aspect to the girl’s identity. The sibilance too, noticeably deployed at the beginning of each line engenders a feeling of uniqueness and the farmer’s wonderment that she is his, though her distance from him frustrates yet fascinates too. Her ‘wild self’ tempts and yet elude him and he asks ‘But what to me?’ We do feel his isolation and perhaps desperation at the bride’s evident difficulty with her marriage to him. Yet he has made her his wife without her real consent and we do feel he has only his own lust to blame for his supposed misery at her rejection of his advances. I said in my introduction that there is some element of ambiguity around the sincerity of the farmer’s feelings. Is he really tormented by his unrequited feelings for his young wife? The lexis suggests affection and sensitivity, yet the behaviour beyond the language suggests patriarchal control if not sexual slavery and confinement. Would a genuinely caring human being subject a vulnerable young woman to such terror? Would they not give her freedom and understanding? Surely he is only thinking about his own desires?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low grey sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas- time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house but we.
Nature is carefully evoked and described in relation to the passage of time. The seasons are changing yet their relationship seems to be at an impasse. The rhyme scheme remains the same and this is again an indication of stasis. The list of changing colours and visual details suggest that the speaker is watching the world with an almost obsessive focus. The details become slightly disturbing(the ‘magpie’s spotted feathers’ and ‘berries’) and perhaps reveal the mounting frustration of the farmer stuck in this house with his reluctant bride. Even the berries are ripening and changing, an ironic contrast to his unchanging relationship with his wife. It seems as though he expects more company, even a child and of course the child cannot happen with sexual intimacy. The rhyming of ‘be’ and ‘we’ adds uneasy weight to his pathological expectations around sex. It as if this ‘we’ is all he can focus on and we feel his insensitivity to the clear distress of his bride.
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! My God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair ! her hair !
The final stanza gives expression to his sexual longing, if not as I ahve said, pathological obsession. He dwells too much upon her body, fetishising her beauty into specific parts that haunt his evidently feverished imaginings. She has retreated to the top of the house. We imagine this is to escape his advances. perhaps the attic is teh only pleace she can sleep! The rhymes in the poem seem to encircle the girl in a web of the farmer’s making. Poetry is used here as a collar or even garrotte!
I am not convinced he means ‘poor maid’. Indeed this could be read as another indication of his lust. He is lamenting her virginity?Poor maid who has resisted him? Or if not her literal virginity, her psychological virginity as she has withdrawn from him as far as she can.
The ‘stairs’ make him shudder with desire as they represent the physical boundary between his body and her sleeping figure. Look at how the use of the two exclamation marks after the mention of the stair gets the speaker ‘going’! He is exclaiming, breaking out into a longing outburst as he imagines what he could enjoy IF he climb that stair and get to her! Ironically the stair has become a literal and metaphorical barrier…even like the hymen perhaps.
The final repetitions accentuate his lingering imaginings of her flesh and the feel of her. It is a shuddering, longing climax that is sexually suggestive if not rather ‘mad’…as he exclaims ‘her hair! her hair! There is definitely a feeling of despair but also maybe a release? He needs to imagine her and part of her allure is her rejection of him? Even though it is clear she is afraid of his unflinching near brutality in hunting her and locking her in, he still remains fixed on objectifying her physically and ‘using’ her body at least in fantasy in order to obtain sexual release.
A strangely uncomfortable, disturbing monologue. It becomes rather voyeuristic and even ‘murky’ sexually as we read on….
Janet Lewison, May 2012
The Woman in Black
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