Thursday, 27 September 2012

By Any Other Name

13:00:00 Posted by Damp incendiary device , , , , , , , , , 3 comments

Hope Mirrlees' poem, My Soul Was a Princess, was first published last year, in a posthumous collection, some 33 years after her death.  Although her most famous poem, Paris: A Poem, is in the modernist style, this piece is more lyrical, more personal.  It seems to cross between the narrative and the lyrical.  Were it not for the first two words, this could be a description lifted from fairytale or fantasy, as in Mirrlees novel, Lud-in-the-Mist.  Instead, the soul is personified in a manner which psychologists would, no doubt, find fascinating.  The perceived author's historical soul becomes a character from another world (I'll leave it to you to work out the number of narrative levels between writer and reader) which smacks of emotions repressed, perhaps embarrassing to divulge.

The drab, unfulfilled tone of longing is sustained throughout the verse through sound and imagery.  The assonant, open-mouthed 'Oh' is engaged from the second stressed vowel in 'soul'.  On line 4 it reappears with 'no hope' only to reemerge on line 10 in 'ghosts of long dead woes', culminating in the final, forceful molossus, 'one red rose'.  And the molossus is used to break up the rhythm and create emphasis in a poem with an abundance of unstressed, or invisible, sounds which add a ghostly whisper to the spoken words.  On line 8 in particular, the phrase 'gray, chill, yearning' forces the reader to slow down, to dwell on the image of the desolate palace, the longing soul. 

The palette which comprises the bulk of the poem is greyscale.  A white moon is followed by silver and pearls.  There is 'no hope of noon'.  Her garments are like 'shrouds' - another ghastly apparition - and violet, which seems a cold, hard colour.  Her fate and her face are both 'wan', her eyes grey, her skin like milk.  Her hair is fabulously captured as 'a pinion of night' so that you can imagine a great, dark swathe of black hair sweeping down towards the ground like a raven's wing. 

What action there is harks back to the theme of the ghastly or demised.  The princess 'dwelt in state', the word dwell being akin to lingering, suggestive of a long, dull passage of time.  A body 'resting in state' is also called to mind which further emphasises the dormant nature of the character.  On line 9 we are told that she 'sat and wept' and by line 12, when she seems to come to life, the double-meaning of the verb 'cry' is not lost on the reader. 

The repetition and layering which creates a scene of oppressive drabness is finally broken by a single, uncluttered image - that of the 'one red rose'.  A powerful symbol of love which stretches back to the classical Greek era, this red bloom is sufficient to sweep away the entire scene which preceded it. Finally, the extended metaphor is clear.  This is what she was yearning for, something bright and full of life; of promise and passion.  The focus of the reader is left on that expectation of fulfilment.  The grey, empty days in the palace seem reasonable as they fade into the background while the 'one red rose' blazes, temptingly, outside the window.  And ultimately this is what gets us through the winter isn't it?  The long, dark nights stretch out before us and the air begins to nip.  But we can withstand winter's woes because we know there's a red rose waiting to draw breath, if we can only withstand the chill a little longer. 


Ashley R Lister said...



Lara Clayton said...

Wonderful post!

vicky ellis said...

Thanks guys :) I really enjoyed writing this (I'm missing the discipline of college) so look out for more of the same next week.