Men were my buttresses, my castellated towers,
the bowers where I took my rest. The best and worst
of times were men: the peacocks and the cockatoos,
the nightingales, the strutting pink flamingos.
Men were my dolphins, my performing seals; my sailing-ships,
the ballast in my hold. They were the rocking-horses
prancing down the promenade, the bandstand
where the music played. My hurdy-gurdy monkey-men.
I was their queen. I sat enthroned before them,
out of reach. We played at courtly love:
the troubadour, the damsel and the peach.
But after I was wedded, bedded, I became
(yes, overnight) a toy, a plaything, little woman,
wife, a bit of fluff. My husband clicked
his fingers, called my bluff.
Dorothy Molloy’s poem above seems to explore the irony of many romantic relationships involving men and women: namely that once a woman is married she loses her independence and power and becomes a mere possession, a commodity, ‘a toy, a plaything’ only a ‘bit of fluff’.
The poem emphasises the possible diminishment of a woman’s independence and power through marriage. What has she given away we wonder? Why has the sexual consummation of their relationship reduced his interest and care?
How ironic is title of the poem when we think of the speaker’s feelings about her undignified predicament?
This irony is key to the whole meaning and message of the poem. For it is this irony that guides the reader to compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’ aspects of romantic involvement and this irony is expressed through the progressive effects of the speaker’s voice and tone in the poem.
We may even detect a resigned weariness in the voice of the speaker, as she looks(retrospectively) back over her life and behaviours, recognising a pattern and eventual ‘destiny’ through her romantic involvements.
Whether or not the poet is making a universal point about marriage and its negative effects on the freedom of women, or whether she is confining herself to personal, subjective anecdote, remains open to the reader’s interpretation.
I would argue that Molloy is using her speaker’s ‘local’ personal experience in order to raise questions about the universal predicament of women in marriage, a predicament explored in other poems in this anthology, including Browning’s My Last Duchess, Duffy’s Medusa and Charlotte Mew’s The Farmer’s Bride, all explored on Tusitala’s blog/resources.
But today, I wish to open my reading of the poem through a choice of question. For as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, the quality of your questions dictates the quality of your response In fact over the last week or so, I have asked students to try out two opening questions as a means of analysing texts.
The first is that old favourite of schools colleges and universities, ‘what do you find interesting about…?’
The second asks ‘what do you find strange about…?’
The first question implies that students should find or will find something ‘interesting’ about a text. This may not be helpful! For it places pressure on both student and text to come up with something interesting. And if they find the text uninteresting then everyone may feel locked into a dull and unproductive conversation!
The second question gives students a way into a text. It offers a reading straight away, through the guiding principle of the ‘strange’!
For Strange gives the reader something to look for, something to experience and even allows for difficulty or misunderstanding.
For I can say this is strange’ because I don’t quite get what it means or it doesn’t seem to make sense with the rest of the text. Straight away I have started my analysis and have ‘things’ to talk about and even places in a text where I can begin to argue about possible meanings.
So let’s apply the question now and see what happens.
‘What is strange about Dorothy Molloy’s poem ‘Les Grands Seigneurs?’
Molloy’s word choices seem strange in this poem. I say strange in terms of the lexis as I am immediately aware of rather odd or eccentric words being used to describe( perhaps metaphorically) the speaker’s relationships with men. These words surprise the reader straight away as they are unfamiliar and take the reader away from conventional ways of evoking relationships.
Look at the opening line of the poem for an example of this strangeness or defamiliarisation: ‘Men were my buttresses, my castellated towers…’
Are we familiar with such a frame of reference? Why does the speaker describe her relationships with men in terms of architecture? She seems to be using metaphors connected to romantic castles or large houses where the rules of courtship and ‘courtly love’ may be observed.
Of course this Lexis is fanciful and unrelated to the reality of daily love. It is this inappropriate aspect of her language and referencing that alerts us to the irony of what she is saying.
Women often relate to men and even to themselves through a vocabulary and context designed to obscure the harsh realities of marriage. These realities are harsh perhaps because the expectations were based on illusion. Society encourages a certain licensed ‘delusion/illusion’ in order that the exchange of ‘romantic love’ can take place.
Here, In Molloy’s opening stanza, ‘men’ are likened to preening birds and romantic rooms, emphasizing how women may experience love through displacement.
By this I mean that women may view their experience through the words and ideas they have learned from romantic images and films and books . They look through filters that hide the realities of sexual interest, family responsibility and the distribution of care.
That is why when we arrive at stanza three we find a revealing use of the verb ‘played’. Love is a game. It veils its intentions in order to ‘seduce’ the players into a relationship where one party at least may feel disappointed and trapped.
Thus the final stanza of Molloy’s cynical, yet knowing poem declares the speaker a ‘plaything..a bit of fluff.’ The bathos of this last stanza is clear. All the expectations generated from the falsifying declarations of love in the rest of the poem become reduced to banalities, common realities.
Where have all the castles and mansions of love gone?!
It may be of interest to think of films and books where such a vocabulary is found and also debunked. Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Du Maurier’s Rebecca explore the Gothic architecture of romance in order to reveal its hollowness and even its malignancy for women.
I am a highly approachable Independent Expert Private English/English Literature Tutor located in Greater Manchester with over twenty years teaching and tutoring experience from Secondary to Postgraduate Degree level.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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