Off-topic request for opinion from all you literary types

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Mon Jan 10 06:24:25 EST 2005


Gili wrote:

>I have a little disagreement with someone, about the reading two particular
>lines in the poem "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop. I'd appreciate it if you
>could read the poem (which we both think is a lovely one), mull it over a
>little, then go down and read the questions after the spoiler space. Our
>argument has to do with how a typical English speaker would read the poem,
>neither of us qualify.

But is anyone on this list typical?  :-)  I thought we were all mavericks
really.

In any case, whatever I may respond is probably not to be taken as being
the response of a typical English speaker.  I have a skewed view of the
world.  And what's more I'll play fair and not look at anything anyone else
may post (or may have posted by the time I post this, I can see that
several people have replied) so that I'm not picking up other people's
ideas.

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>1. In the first line of the second stanza, the poem refers to "equinoctial
>tears". Please give a synonym for "equinoctial" which you think could be
>appropriate for the poem.

I can't do it in a single word, because for me there's too much baggage
attending the one we've already got.  Equinoctial gales are a phrase to be
found in eg Chambers Dictionary 1926 and Collins 2000 (and Hornblower
insists they're a superstition, as far as I remember, in which he agrees
with Chambers and disagrees with Bush) and they're supposed to take the
last of the leaves off the trees and clear things ready for winter -- which
they never really do.  It's all very much tied in with a change-of-season,
change-of-mood feeling, the harvest-time is over and the winter is coming,
water dripping off the ends of the thatch in a slightly melancholy way, and
some people would say "autumnal" but autumn is too beautiful (in a
melancholy sort of way) for that to be entirely the right word: equinoctial
has a slightly sinister connotation because of the "stormy weather"
undertone. There's something in there about the days drawing in and no more
long evenings with the shadows of the chestnut trees spreading further and
further across the cricket-pitch, the time has come to stay in doors and
put more wood on the fire (and roast chestnuts, too).  Crying for the loss
of summer, that's what those tears are to me.

(The vernal equinox obviously can't be the one that's being meant if the
poem is in September, so I shall ignore it.  It too has gales, though, I
think.  Or rather doesn't: as Chambers says, "the belief is unsupported by
observation.")

Mind you, since "equinoctial" also means "of the celestial equator", other
significance is possible from *that* meaning, but I don't find it there
myself.

>2. How do you read the lines:
>
>She shivers and says she thinks the house
>feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

I read them straight.  They make perfectly good sense.

Oh, all right: the imminent arrival of winter, signalled by the autumnal or
equinoctial storm outside, makes the grandmother shiver, and the fact of
shivering is associated in her mind with the cold of the winter that is to
come, so strongly that she actually feels colder, and the house seems less
warm, so she takes action appropriate to a colder house and puts more wood
on the stove so that the stove will heat the room more quickly and
thoroughly.  She is old; she gets cold more easily than the child; she has
experienced more cold winters, and so knows what to expect of the changing
weather, better than does the child.  The grandmother, the almanac and the
stove all have knowledge the child as yet lacks about the changing seasons,
the mutability of things, and the possibility of a need for tears in the
months ahead.

The child takes tears lightly, and changes them first into a dance on the
stove, and then into buttons; for the grandmother they are more deeply
felt, and she weeps real tears and changes her tea into tears.  It's
beautifully done, that juxtaposition.  Not to mention that the child's
reaction to tears is overt: watching them dance, drawing them; the
grandmother and the almanac both conceal tears, one by laughing and talking
to hide them, the other by dropping them into the soil of a garden in a
picture.  Not all of wisdom brings joy!

>Please rewrite this in your own words.

Why?  It's fine as it is!  Alternatively, the contra-precis is above.  :-)

>I'll wait for a few responses to come in, and then explain our argument.

Some of the above waffle may be an answer of some kind to something.

>Your input will be much appreciated.

If only for muddling things beyond human comprehension, which is what
generally happens if one starts to explain feelings that have already been
better and more simply expressed by someone else.

Minnow


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