Waiting for Adulthood: Aging in “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses”
Elizabeth Bishop ends her famous poem “One Art” with the lines, “It’s evident the art of losing isn’t too hard to master / though it may look like… disaster.” Although “One Art” lists many literal and symbolic forms of loss, the one that becomes the most prominent in Bishop’s poetry is the loss of time. Likewise, her poems “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses” both display the relationship between individuals’ personal development and the passing of time. In this essay, I intend to explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to demonstrate growth and maturity over time in these poems.
Although “At the Fishhouses,” which was first published in 1947, uses imagery of age and seasons very similar to that in “The Waiting Room,” which was not written until the 1970s, which suggests The speaker of the poem begins by saying, “Although it is a cold evening, / down by one of the fishhouses / an old man sits netting.” In emphasizing the cold weather, Bishop is placing the beginning of the timeline in the late fall or winter. With the old man sitting in the cold, perhaps with the risk of freezing by the water, she appears to also be inviting the reader to think of this time as the season of death, or at the very least the season of harsh stillness. Winter is a time in which growth ceases––plants die, animals hibernate, and people retreat to their warm homes––but this man is sitting by the fishhouses in the icy cold regardless. The speaker proceeds to remark on the “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water,” reiterating the old man’s presence in an unusual place, and she then notes that “Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin.” These “dignified tall firs” have grown from seedlings, so the fact that they are literally behind both the speaker and the old man might suggest that the trees are part of their pasts, and that they are even older than the trees. Later on, the poem’s conclusion indicates the speaker’s acceptance of the passage of time and knowledge when she notes that the present tastes like “… what we imagine knowledge to be: … utterly free … drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.” By comparing the current place and time to the knowledge people can only hope to find in life, the speaker is demonstrating her contentedness, acceptance, and perhaps even a sense of achievement for growing up and finding peace.
The references to weather and the inclusion of time as an entity in “At the Fishhouses” bear several parallels to those in “In the Waiting Room,” but in the latter, they seem to indicate the speaker’s more apprehensive attitude towards the passing of time. When the speaker says “Outside / … were night and slush and cold / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918,” it seems that she is referring to the younger version of the speaker, perhaps the young Elizabeth Bishop, returning to her present after being sporadically bounced around between her past, present, and future––she is neither full adult nor full child, because she is only 6, but is now aware of the growth, being, and understanding of adults after reading National Geographic and hearing her aunt scream from the dentist’s chair. This apparently traumatic jolt into the adult world may be the cause for the speaker’s amnesty towards growing older, which seems to be what she is suggesting when her language moves quickly from that of childhood to that of adulthood, which she does at the beginning of the poem when she speaks in very matter-of-fact terms about her surroundings, saying “It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room / was full of grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats.” This technique presents to the reader a childish stream of consciousness and the antsiness of waiting not only to leave the dentist’s office, but also to grow up. In adopting the voice of a child in this poem and finding herself displeased rather than at peace with the winter weather, the speaker seems to be suggesting that she prefers another time than the one she is currently in with both age and season.
Another unique way of presenting the passage of time in these two poems is the use of imagery that indicates tenderness and perhaps even childishness, and each method outlines a different attitude towards time elapsing. While the movement to and from adulthood is central to “In the Waiting Room” since the emphasis is on fast-paced growth and maturity, early life and tender roots are glazed over in “At the Fishhouses,” which focuses primarily on the present moment despite the artistic acknowledgments of what is literally and figuratively behind her. Meanwhile, in “In the Waiting Room,” the young speaker moves back and forth between childhood and adulthood in her language. She first notes how long she has been waiting for her aunt, and she shares with the reader in a childlike manner that she is reading National Geographic because “(she could read).” As the memory of her eyes moving from the science section with the volcano to the high-style section with horses to the culture section featuring the naked women, she is shocked into adulthood by the images of a world she’s not yet a part of. Immediately after she sees the image of the woman’s “horrifying breasts,” she is spurred into womanhood: her aunt’s voice escapes her lips. While “At the Fishhouses” represents the steady acceptance of this role in the world years later, the speaker is too young to accept this. Although she “ knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” she returns to childhood as she ponders her upcoming birthday. Ultimately, though, this moment of change has a lasting impact: she cannot help but wonder why it is that she will become a woman, asking herself “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone? What similarities /… held us all together / or made us all just one?” Although the adult speaker in “At the Fishhouses” may not be able to answer this fully, she does demonstrate the fact that something holds all adults together, and that adulthood must eventually be accepted.
In conclusion, “The Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses both display the relationship between personal development and time passing, but the first shows the reader how it can be sporadic while the second demonstrates how it is eventually accepted. Although the two have different perspectives, they both explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to display growth and maturity over time in her poetry.
Pan and the Dual Nature of Artistic Creation in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument”
In her 1862 poem “A Musical Instrument,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning returns to the mythical figure of Pan, a favorite topic of hers as well as a popular and traditional metaphor for poets since classical times. Barrett Browning had already written about Pan and even the Pan and Syrinx myth in her earlier poems “The Dead Pan,” “A Reed,” and “Mountaineer and Poet,” but in “A Musical Instrument” she employs the goat-god as a vehicle for a new message. Pan’s hybrid nature makes him an ideal character through which to comment on the Janus face of art and its creation. Correspondingly, there are many dualities found throughout the poem. In “A Musical Instrument,” Barrett Browning uses the figure of Pan and his dual nature as both beast and god to question the meaning and virtuosity of art, poetry, and the creative method.The classical myth of Pan and Syrinx itself, even before it is filtered through the pen of a modern poet, touches on the idea of the destruction inherent in creation. In the myth, the nymph Syrinx is transformed into a reed. In effect, her humanity is destroyed in order to create a beautiful element of nature. Next the reed is destroyed in order to create the man-made beauty of a pipe and music. “A Musical Instrument” begins half-way into the story, with Syrinx already having been transformed into a reed. Therefore, we can focus on the artistic creation of a musical instrument from a reed rather than the (more disturbing and worrisome) transformation of a humanoid into a plant. By beginning half-way into the story, Barrett Browning prevents the distracting themes of the first part from intruding upon the ideas brought up in the second half. Thus we can ignore ideas about lust, pursuit, and divine intervention.When the poem begins, Pan is wreaking havoc upon pristine nature. However, his actions are couched in Barrett Browning’s beautiful, lyrical poetry. Already the dichotomy between destruction and beauty is set up. In the first two stanzas Pan is destroying natural splendor, and not creating anything at all. He is “[s]preading ruin and scattering ban” (3), and “breaking the golden lilies” (5). However, the poetic, artistic elements of the poem rival the destruction, almost overshadowing it. The auditor is immediately immersed in Barrett Browning’s evocative imagery, rife with adjectives describing the scene. The river has a “deep cool bed” (8), in which the once “limpid water” now runs “turbidly” (9). In addition to the imagery, the musical elements of the poem and the sounds of the words are captivating as well. Barrett Browning sets up a classical, idyllic scene. Nature is portrayed as utopian, as existing in a time before modern intrusions (intrusions perhaps symbolized by Pan’s arrival on the scene – Morlier suggests that Barrett Browning’s Pan “typifies a whole cluster of moral problems… in British culture” ). Reinforcing the classical setting is the poem’s loose but generally dactylic meter, a favorite of classical poets, which compliments the already classical subject matter. Barrett Browning borrows even more from the classical poets like Ovid, who told this myth in his Metamorphoses, in her method of narration. There is no clear audience or designated speaker, but rather a semi-omniscient narrator who tells the story without worrying about a specific purpose for telling it. Barrett Browning’s diction also adds to the classical feel of her poem as she uses archaic words like the frequent “sate” for “sat” and constructions often found in translations of Greek and Latin, like “nevermore again” (41) and the repeated phrase “the great god Pan.” The enjoyable, artistic elements of the poem sharply contrast with its content. Merivale states it well when she says that Barrett Browning’s idea and the melodious “simple lyric which transmits the idea… are to some extent at odds, for the cruelty she imputes to Pan is muffled by the honey of her verses” (84). Barrett Browning carefully creates the musical feeling which thinly veils the destruction inherent in the action of the poem. Repetition and rhyme are major elements in the formation of this melodic quality. Each stanza follows an abaccb rhyme scheme, in which the second and sixth lines always end in the word “river,” and the first line always ends in the phrase “the great god Pan.” This phrase is emphasized both by its repetition and by the fact that it is made up of two iambs, whereas much of the rest of the poem is composed of dactyls. The repetition of this phrase and the evolution of its tone from conveying the traditional and straightforward idea of Pan at the beginning to bearing a troublingly ironic message at the end traces and helps to communicate the growing question about the purity and virtuosity of art and the method by which it is created.Another dichotomy found in the poem is that between the male and the female. Many critics read Barrett Browning’s depiction of the bestial side of Pan as thinly veiled resentment of the male poet and the superior position of the male to the female in Victorian society. Diehl claims that Barrett Browning’s “resentment of the brute, masculine, destructive force Pan embodies suggests a hidden resentment of the male poet” (585), and that the poem “demonstrates the fusion in [Barrett Browning’s] mind of the destructive, the bestial, and the masculine with the muse/poet, an image she describes with antagonistic bitterness” (585). However, too much importance is placed on Barrett Browning’s gender, and the feminist reading of the poem as primarily expressing resentment of the male artist undercuts the more important idea about the dual nature of artistic creation. Whatever Barrett Browning may be saying about gender, it is secondary to her main theme and best viewed as yet another example of alternative natures that reflect the double-sided qualities of art. It is hard not to dwell on Pan’s grotesque, clearly masculine qualities, exemplified by the “hard bleak steel” (16) that he uses to conquer the natural reed (a woman). Though the steel can surely be seen as a phallic symbol of power with which Pan rapes the reed, it is important to note that Pan’s purpose is not solely to “defile… the female reality,” as Morlier claims (272), but rather to create art. Thus a commentary on the masculine versus the feminine is not a major concern of Barrett Browning in “A Musical Instrument,” and the omitted beginning of the myth allows the reed to simply be a symbol of beauty and nature. In fact, at the end of the poem the “true gods” (40) lament that the reed will never again grow as a beautiful reed in the river – they do not even mention that the nymph will never again be a woman! Further de-emphasizing the reed’s gender is the language when Pan hollows out the reed. He draws out the pith “like the heart of a man,” (21) representing humanity, not woman-kind. Finally, if Barrett Browning had wanted to empower the feminine, she might have given to the female reed the power that she strips from Pan. Rather, in the end, she gives power to the infinite and androgynous “true gods” (Morlier 272). Pan’s masculinity is only important insofar as it creates an ideal character through whom Barrett Browning can express her main idea.What is important to Barrett Browning is not Pan’s masculinity, but the combination of creation and destruction in the name of art that he personifies. After Pan destroys the natural beauty of the Arcadian scene in the first two stanzas, he begins the artistic process of transforming material. His actions are violent, he “hack[s] and hew[s]” (15), but this is necessary for the creation of the musical instrument. Pan himself states that the initial destruction is necessary for the creation of music, “‘This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan, / …’The only way, since gods began / To make sweet music'” (25-28). It is important to note that this is Pan’s statement, not the narrator’s or Barrett Browning’s (Diehl 585), and that it is tinged with evil laughter. Because it is Pan’s voice the validity of the statement is drawn into question, and Pan’s sinister laughter is immediately repugnant. Though the process of the pipe’s creation is violent and distasteful, once it is completed it is wondrous. Pan animates the pipe by “[blowing] in power” (30), and all of nature’s beauty is instantly restored: Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!Piercing sweet by the river!Blinding sweet, O great god Pan!The sun on the hill forgot to die,And the lilies revived, and the dragon-flyCame back to dream on the river.(31-36)If the poem closed here, it would seem that Barrett Browning was concurring with Pan’s notion that the creation of art is well worth whatever violence and destruction comes before it. However, Pan does not have the last word. The “true gods” lament Pan’s actions in the final stanza, closing the poem on a different note.These “true gods,” not demigods like Pan, and thus free from base, cruel and beastly grounding, recognize the cost at which Pan’s creation of the musical instrument has come. They express the notion that it might be better if the reed was still “a reed with the reeds in the river” (42). The “true gods” seem to acknowledge that suffering is necessary for art, but at the same time question whether art justifies suffering (the veracity of which Pan takes for granted). Another dichotomy is now set up, this time between Pan (now the irony in the phrase “the great god Pan” is most apparent) and the real gods. As Merivale notes, “Pan is countered by the ‘true gods’ who hold the ethical balance, who judge that ‘the cost and pain’ of artistic creativity are too great” (84). Barrett Browning herself does not seem to come to a conclusion about creation’s virtue or lack thereof. Though she seems to condemn Pan as the “goat-god come to ravage” nature with his “astounding arrogance” (Diehl 584), she does not clearly disregard the view he symbolizes. After all, he is only “half a beast… To laugh as he sits by the river, / Making a poet out of a man” (37-39) as he revels in his artistic creation born of destruction. Perhaps the bestial side is necessary, and creation is not possible without a cruel, dark and destructive underbelly. In the final stanza the gods sigh and recall the reed as it was, acknowledging the human sacrifice (Diehl 585), but they do not explicitly wish that it was still a reed (or, metaphorically, a person). By the end of “A Musical Instrument,” the nature of art and creation has not changed. It still embodies a duality of beauty and cruelty, just as Pan is both god and beast. The question as to whether or not art is worth the sacrifice necessary for its creation has not been answered, but only elucidated. Barrett Browning seems to sigh with her “true gods,” wishing it was not so – but in the end, despite her qualms, she still takes up her pen and creates her art.Works CitedDiehl, Joanne Feit. “‘Come Slowly: Eden’: An Exploration of Women Poets and Their Muse”. Signs, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Spring 1978): 572-87.Merivale, Patricia. Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969.Morlier, Margaret M. “The Death of Pan: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Romantic Ego.” Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Sandra Donaldson. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. 258-74.
Absence Speaks Louder: Kriztina’s Subjugated Role in Embers
At times, a novel can communicate the most with the stories it chooses not to tell, rather than the ones it does. In Sandor Marai’s moody, claustrophobic drama, Embers, such is the case of the Henrik’s wife Krisztina, a woman who is already long dead at the novel’s opening. Though essential to the narrative structure, and one third of the original hunting party, Marai forms Krisztina’s character as a veritable cypher. Her character is first referred to as merely “the new countess” (11); her name is only brought up, entire chapters later, through conversational reference (71). Her first trait to be revealed: she was fond of crayfish (71). Krisztina’s minimalist development, however, is far from banal. Though subtle, it is nonetheless critical to the work’s overall themes of emotional abandonment, stifling social order, and the true cost of honor. Cursed to love men too proud to love even themselves, the woman’s brief, tragic life is mirrored in the text by the perpetual shadow cast over the characters which survive her. By leaving a primary perspective vacant in the novel, Marai shapes Krizstina as the embodiment of the loss brought on by systemic emotional neglect, a collective social fate in which prideful misunderstandings, prejudices, and the inequalities of honor rob individuals of their very identities.
Though faint and sparse, the voice of Krisztina echoes damningly from the pages of the novel. In a recollection by Nini, devoted caretaker, an initial glimpse into her suffocating world is provided:
” “There is something I must tell you. When Krisztina was dying, she called for you.” “Yes,” said the General. “I was there.” “You were there and yet you weren’t there. You were so far away you might as well have been on a voyage. You were in your room, and she was dying. Alone with me, round about dawn. And then she asked for you. I am telling this because you should know it this evening.” The General said nothing.” (74)
Marai does not reveal her exact dying words; even in her final moments, Krisztina is doomed to speak ever through others. Understated by the domestic context of preparing for dinner, the extent of Henrik’s cruelty in those final moments is obscene. A virtual devil, yet with a stiff upper lip, Henrik’s behavior symbolizes a social code which held no empathy for those perceived to be in the wrong. In the opulent, merciless world of aristocracy, entitlements subjugate humanity. For the small transgression of a youthful infidelity, Krisztina’s is quite literally fated to die alone, starved of love, respect, and all but the most superficial of company. Her pain as a human being is not seen as such, by her culture or her husband. It is seen as the pain of an unfaithful woman, a fate that has been duly earned by her transgressions. To look for the justice in such a heartless breed of morality is to find only the vast wastes of its victim’s lives, an emptiness encapsulated by the General’s inability to give even the feeblest of responses.
Once liberated by schnapps, however, the General at last finds the mind to elucidate Krisztina’s life, kindling a small yet steady flame against the darkness of her death. He reminisces, “She was like an animal… underneath she was wild and untamable” (175). Though spoken in fondness, this memory houses a thread of bitter irony. This spark of life, this flaunting of convention, is exactly what Henrik is unable to cope with, shattering completely upon learning of her love affair with Konrad. Unquestionably desirable, Krisztina was desired on the terms of others; and though she may have been on some level understood, she was never truly accepted by the world in which she lived. Such is the fate of those living in a patriarchal, moralist society, one unable bring its natural desire for self-realized, confident women in line with a rigidly oppressive social system. Krisztina is effectively trapped, as her most attractive, beloved qualities are brought as charges against her; and her own natural pursuit of happiness, though at first encouraged by her peers, is soon suffocated by the obligations of an emotionally dead relationship.
The most powerful symbol of Krisztina’s spiritual subjugation comes near the close of the novel. Contained within a sealed, yellow velvet diary is, as Henrik phrases it, “alarming evidence of her inner self and her love and her doubts” (203), a confessional record her most truthful feelings. The fact that such things would cause Henrik alarm comes as no surprise; the revelation that the woman who he had from the beginning treated as an extension of his own body had thoughts and feelings of her own would be no doubt upsetting. Poised on the precipice of understanding, of allowing the woman whose life he effectively destroyed a mote of final respect, Henrik elects to retain his own massively self-centered character and, “with an almost lazy gesture, he throws the little book into the embers of the fire” (204). The cruelty of such an action, at the hands of one who once claimed genuine love, is monstrous. In this moment, the assassination of Krisztina’s very existence is complete; a woman who was essentially, beautifully contrary has at last been vaporized. This turn of events is not surprising. Justified by abstract concepts of honor, obligation, and truth, Henrik commits one final act of treachery against the wife he forsook, and Krisztina finds herself once again at the hands of an artificial superior with no true claim to her life or legacy. Marai seeks to detail the inevitability of distance, the inescapability of empty space; by choosing to have one of his principle’s character’s last testaments consumed quietly by flame, he writes his most powerful statement of futility in the ashes.
Throughout Embers, Marai asks pointedly via the reflections of his characters: at what cost comes honor? What value holds dignity, in the absence of love? High and little, are the answers that the desperate, softly tragic Krisztina provides. In a moment of extroversion, Henrik considers his wife’s feelings, “She… had been wounded by those she loved” (191). This verbal acknowledgement comes as a notice of injustice, not as remedy or apology. Regret is difficult to express in the language of privilege, and therein lays the self-destruction of the empirical class which is the essential theme of the text. A beautiful, spirited woman, young love, youthful indiscretion, foolish pride: all are common elements of the human heart. But once that heart has been subjected to a stifling set of values, one in which humanity and weakness are shunned in favor of cheap, gilded decorum, forgiveness for these everyday sins becomes impossible, and healing ceases to occur. The novel offers no solutions, to Krisztina or to the world. Only creeping ash, and a harsh warning against rules left unbroken, truths left unsaid, and lives left tragically un-lived.
Marai, Sandor. Embers. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.