Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A glancing blow

I was writing some Easter letters last week. Yes, I write Easter letters. We do have some friends and family who are quite serious about Easter, so we send them cards and we might as well enclose a letter while we're at it.

In one of my missives, I was describing our February trip to Toronto which included a trip to the Ontario Science Centre. On Family Day. We deserve a medal.

We saw a special exhibit on whales and I sought to illustrate my letter with a picture of the pakicetus, the ancient land-living ancestor of today's whale. Only I couldn't recall the actual word "pakicetus", so typed "Whale Evolution" into Google Images. One of the images that came up was of a round young woman standing on a beach, and the photo was captioned with some adolescent joke about evolving hands out of flippers to hold Twinkies. And I sat there sadly, feeling a little sick, thinking of this girl, posing innocently on the beach for a friend or maybe a family member who presumably posted the photo to something like Flckr or PhotoBucket where some guy (it has to be a guy, right?) thought it would be a hilarious joke to paste this all over the internet.

The next morning, I glanced into one of my Poem of the Day books, and up came this famous triolet:

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
- Frances Cornford (1886-1960)

Frances Cornford was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin and married to a classical scholar named Francis Cornford. This is supposed to be one of her most famous poems which is a pity, because she actually wrote some lovely stuff. This isn't lovely: it's mean-spirited, pretentious, supercilious, arrogant and inequitable. The sort of thing, in short, that might be written by a very young person, as I suspect that puerile photo-poster with the cruel sense of humour was. Cornford was twenty-nine when she wrote it, so I feel even less inclined to excuse her.

Fortunately, GK Chesterton gave Mrs Cornford a well-deserved literary smack:

Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?
Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

Quite right. You go, Gilbert.

However, it occurred to me that I am guessing so much about both GK Chesterton, whom I really only recognise in passing, and Frances Cornford, about whom I knew nothing until now. So I've got a book about Chesterton out of the library and will now head off in search of more of Cornford poetry, because, as I've said, she did write some lovely stuff. I may even read it on the train. But a bus is more likely.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Glad I'm not alone as having always felt oddly uncomfortable about the Cornford train poem...

Rob said...

Ditto that. But I love the Chesterton which was new to me.