Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Let's Look At It Again from a Different Perspective

_____ Maud Muller _____


Maud Muller, on a summer's day,
Raked the meadows sweet with hay.

Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.

Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.

But, when she glanced to the far-off town,
White from its hill-slope looking down,

The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast--

A wish, that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.

The Judge rode slowly down the lane,
Smoothing his horse's chestnut mane.

He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees, to greet the maid,

And ask a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.

She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,

And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.

"Thanks!" said the Judge, "a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed."

He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;

Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.

And Maud forgot her briar-torn gown,
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;

And listened, while a pleasant surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.

At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away,

Maud Muller looked and sighed: "Ah, me!
That I the Judge's bride might be!

"He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.

"My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a painted boat.

"I'd dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.

"And I'd feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door."

The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.

"A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne'er hath it been my lot to meet.

"And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.

"Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay:

"No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,

"But low of cattle, and song of birds,
And health, and quiet, and loving words."

But he thought of his sisters, proud and cold,
And his mother, vain of her rank and gold.

So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;

And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.

Yet oft, in his marble hearth's bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go:

And sweet Maud Muller's hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.

Oft when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;

And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms,
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.

And the proud man sighed, with a secret pain,
"Ah, that I were free again!

"Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay."

She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.

But care and sorrow, and child-birth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.

And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,

And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through the wall,

In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein,

And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.

Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;

The weary wheel to a spinnet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned;

And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o'er pipe and mug,

A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.

Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, "It might have been."

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!

God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;

And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!


~ John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1882)

30 comments:

  1. Don't ya LOVE playing Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings?

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    1. The Watchdog said

      Hemings.

      One "m" only please.

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    2. The Watchdog said

      I neglected to add that her first name was Sallie not Sally.

      Sallie Hemings was her name, though the role she played in Jefferson's life may have been seriously misrepresented for partisan political purposes.

      Delete
  2. Plato, "Statesman"

    STRANGER: The courageous soul when attaining this truth becomes civilized, and rendered more capable of partaking of justice; but when not partaking, is inclined to brutality. Is not that true?

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Certainly.

    STRANGER: And again, the peaceful and orderly nature, if sharing in these opinions, becomes temperate and wise, as far as this may be in a State, but if not, deservedly obtains the ignominious name of silliness.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Quite true.

    STRANGER: Can we say that such a connexion as this will lastingly unite the evil with one another or with the good, or that any science would seriously think of using a bond of this kind to join such materials?

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Impossible.

    STRANGER: But in those who were originally of a noble nature, and who have been nurtured in noble ways, and in those only, may we not say that union is implanted by law, and that this is the medicine which art prescribes for them, and of all the bonds which unite the dissimilar and contrary parts of virtue is not this, as I was saying, the divinest?

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Very true.

    STRANGER: Where this divine bond exists there is no difficulty in imagining, or when you have imagined, in creating the other bonds, which are human only.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: How is that, and what bonds do you mean?

    STRANGER: Rights of intermarriage, and ties which are formed between States by giving and taking children in marriage, or between individuals by private betrothals and espousals. For most persons form marriage connexions without due regard to what is best for the procreation of children.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: In what way?

    STRANGER: They seek after wealth and power, which in matrimony are objects not worthy even of a serious censure.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: There is no need to consider them at all.

    STRANGER: More reason is there to consider the practice of those who make family their chief aim, and to indicate their error.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Quite true.

    STRANGER: They act on no true principle at all; they seek their ease and receive with open arms those who are like themselves, and hate those who are unlike them, being too much influenced by feelings of dislike.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: How so?

    STRANGER: The quiet orderly class seek for natures like their own, and as far as they can they marry and give in marriage exclusively in this class, and the courageous do the same; they seek natures like their own, whereas they should both do precisely the opposite.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: How and why is that?

    STRANGER: Because courage, when untempered by the gentler nature during many generations, may at first bloom and strengthen, but at last bursts forth into downright madness.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: Like enough.

    STRANGER: And then, again, the soul which is over-full of modesty and has no element of courage in many successive generations, is apt to grow too indolent, and at last to become utterly paralyzed and useless.

    YOUNG SOCRATES: That, again, is quite likely.

    STRANGER: It was of these bonds I said that there would be no difficulty in creating them, if only both classes originally held the same opinion about the honourable and good;—indeed, in this single work, the whole process of royal weaving is comprised—never to allow temperate natures to be separated from the brave, but to weave them together, like the warp and the woof, by common sentiments and honours and reputation, and by the giving of pledges to one another; and out of them forming one smooth and even web, to entrust to them the offices of State.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Four centuries before Christ the same issues we grapple with unsuccessfully today were fully understood by Plato.

      Obviously he would have had no difficulty understanding the broad social and philosophical inferences I tried to draw from Whittier's famous poem.

      The tragedy of Existence lies in how little human beings understand their basic, hopelessly flawed nature.

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  3. I apologize for continuing to rankle you with my ignorance, but is there some commentary on this poem from the author, or a Cliff's Notes?

    I understand how someone can read this poem and get exactly what you've gotten out of it, and I appreciate it. Great art (and this poem is great art) breaks us out of time's unremorseful one-way arrow and provides us portal to infinity.

    However, you were quite strident in yesterday's thread when you upbraided me for not seeing it your way. For the clarity of discussion, I reprint here the chunk of dogmata you barked out at me in yesterday's thread:

    Keep THINKING, Kurt. I'm not going to explain to anyone -- especially not you. Wasn't it you I was lecturing just the other day about the American public's increasing inability to draw inferences, understand allusions, see parallels, and comprehend figurative language?

    I'll give you one clue, however:

    Maud Muller is NOT a charming vignette of pastoral life in the nineteenth century, nor is it a simple folk tale of two people who happen to encounter one another by the side of a country lane on a lovely summer afternoon.
    The setting may seem bucolic, but the meaning has implications that apply to human interaction everywhere.


    *************************

    Is your way the only right interpretation? Am I wrong for taking this poem on its face as a longing for what might have been? Regret at not seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Perhaps even romanticizing our past?

    Or even this: Maybe the lawyer wasn't so handsome. Perhaps he was down at the heel and mean looking. Maybe Maud was dumpty, a big wart on her nose, and not particularly friendly. Maybe the two of them, years gone by, marriages flat, look back on the encounter and their imaginations embroider and shade, and provide a light dusting of beautiful hues to the unpleasant spots...

    But back to my original point. Is your interpretation the 'correct' one? Am I wrong in my reading? Must art be seen only one way, the way the experts would have us see it? Or is it open to the interpretation of the beholder?

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    1. "is there some commentary on this poem from the author..."

      I could only find "Whittier himself did not think much of the poem which he once said was not worth analysis."
      Goes to show how much he knew! Funny how often authors are blind to the charms of their finest works.

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    2. The beauty of poetry lies in its' openness to interpretation, for the "frame" is not usually firmly fixed into a specific context.

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    3. Thank you both for your responses.

      I have much more experience with music than with classical poetry, and the best songwriters (say, the Decemberists) don't jump up and down and insist you feel exactly what they felt, or puff up indignant if the song conjures in you something different than what they intended.

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    4. You must have noticed that in matters that you and I consider to be subjective, Freethinke is often absolutist.

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    5. Kurt,

      Please read the explanation I've tried to give for my motives in trying to stage what-I-hoped-would-be a fruitful, intellectual exercise in using imagination to examine possible interpretations of an established work from varying points of view. The only thing about which I am likely to reman "dogmatic" would be my insistence on trying to have my motives properly understood.

      Apparently, we have become so inured to looking at every point at issue as the basis for COMBAT -- a contest of wills -- we've forgotten how to discuss differing or contrasting ideas with any sense of adventure or degree of fun and cordiality.

      "OPPOSITIONISM" and "REFUTATIONISM" rarely fail to produce acrimony. They have become epidemic. I see them as The Blight of the Blogosphere.

      Delete
    6. FJ said,

      "The beauty of poetry lies in its openness to interpretation, for the "frame" is not usually firmly fixed in a specific context."

      Egg-ZACK-Lee!!!

      Thank you for your succinctly stated understanding.

      Delete
    7. Jez said, "You must have noticed that in matters that you and I consider to be subjective, FreeThinke is often absolutist."

      It seems to trouble you when someone has definite ideas and firm convictions. I can't think why.

      Delete
    8. Nope (although in general awareness of the subjectivity of one's own point of view is a quality I admire), just pointing out that your dogmatism shouldn't surprise Kurt -- it is your habitual stance.

      Delete
  4. Fannie Frumpstead-Feminazi said

    What a ridiculous piece of male chauvinist claptrap! Here is how the story should have ended.

    She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
    But gentle and loving, a man to adore.

    Her children were happy and of good health,
    Sunshine and laughter were better than wealth.

    Many years passed 'til she saw him again
    Glad for escaping what might have been.

    His eyes were cold, his head held high,
    He was the one who heaved a sigh.

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  5. Oh, FT, this is too good an opportunity to pass up. You and Fannie up there have inspired even me to try my unskilled hand at verse.

    Here's a more likely scenario:

    Sadder still than "It might have been"
    Is the admonition, "It should have been."

    For had they wed, and set to rut
    He'd soon have seen the little slut

    For the hard and wily wee gold digger
    She was with temper quick, hair trigger,

    Shrill, demanding, ever nagging,
    Overfed with figure sagging

    All made worse by his ma and siblings'
    Noting his children's smelly dribblings,

    While adding greatly to his woe
    By reminding him daily, "We told you so!"

    - Samuel Teasdale McGurk

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  6. Good Lord! I'm surprised that so far no one seems to understand why I staged this exercise, or seems to have any idea why it could be related to Martin Luther King's effect on American culture and mores.

    Whittier's poem -- like all good creative endeavors -- has much deeper implications than may appear easily on the surface.

    What is Maud Miller really about? A story of nascent love nipped in the bud to be sure, but WHY was it aborted? Why were two, apparently worthy, individuals consigned to lead miserable unfulfilled lives?

    One set of couplets explains it succinctly:

    But he thought of his sisters, proud and cold,
    And his mother, vain of her rank and gold.

    So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
    And Maud was left in the field alone.


    The pressures of "position," family pride, long established custom, and class differences were allowed to spoil "what-might-have-been" a sublimely happy relationship.

    I thought the illustrations I chose -- a handsome, aristocratic looking white man siting high astride a white horse, and a wistful, demure, extraordinarily beautiful black woman would have made it patently obvious why I think this sweet, sad tale may be read as singularly appropriate for Martin Luther King's Day.

    Of course Whittier had no such thing in mind specifically, but in essence his work illustrates the deep sadness, frustration and loss of good opportunities we inflict on each other by zealously maintaining the artificial barriers of race, class, religion set up by distant, long forgotten ancestors.

    Read the poem again, and imagine "Maud" as an Hispanic immigrant girl, a Jewish girl, an Asian girl -- or even a young man called Martin Muller! None of that violates the spirit of Whittier's poem, even though I doubt very much he thought of the extended images I suggest.



    ReplyDelete
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    1. John Greenleaf Whittier was an activist abolitionist -- which is not to say that he advocated miscegenation. Might he have in a different century?

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    2. BTW, the Wikipedia entry for Whittier is very informative. I recommend it.

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    3. I don't think "miscegenation" per se would have entered Whittier's conscious thoughts, AOW, but I MUST emphasize, despite the danger of being accused of being stubborn, conceited, imperious and dogmatic, ;-) that the ESSENCE of this poem lies in the the lack of fulfillment, heartbreak, and tragedy that too often go along with letting ourselves be governed by a crippling fear of crossing artificial social barriers, breaking taboos, and abandoning restrictive, oppressive customs and traditions.

      This may seem a quantum leap, but in it's own relatively-gentle-but-intensely-moving way Maud Muller makes the same point Shirley Jackson made a hundred years later in The Lottery, and Harper Lee made even later in To Kill a Mockingbird.

      The point is made beautifully in Driving Miss Daisy. Fanny Flagg made it yet again -- as have dozens of others no doubt -- in Fried Green Tomatoes.

      All are but the way mindless obedience to Custom may keep us "safe," but all too often destroys any chance we might have at achieving happiness.

      I just realized The Ghost and Mrs. Muir poignantly illustrates the point as well.

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    4. @ FreeThinke: "the ESSENCE of this poem lies in the the lack of fulfillment, heartbreak, and tragedy that too often go along with letting ourselves be governed by a crippling fear of crossing artificial social barriers, breaking taboos, and abandoning restrictive, oppressive customs and traditions."

      Well said, and I agree completely, even if you are stubborn, conceited, imperious and dogmatic ;-)

      Delete
    5. P.S. As we discussed, I've broken a few social barriers and taboos myself...

      Delete
  7. Fannie, your creative "alternative" to Whittier is amusing, and very well-crafted, but it shows you to be more a romantic than a feminist, despite your modern low regard for the handsome judge.

    Sam, your cynical approach to "besting" Whittier is funny but also telling, because what it projects may well have been true if Love's Young Dream had been fulfilled. I took note of Maud's markedly materialistic dreams about what life might be like as the judge's wife, myself, but don't believe Whittier intended that to be considered a major feature of his romantic -- even sentimental -- opus.

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  8. FT:

    No hard feelings, my friend, but I too this bold-face statement of yours to be a dogmatic pronouncement that closes the case:

    Maud Muller is NOT a charming vignette of pastoral life in the nineteenth century, nor is it a simple folk tale of two people who happen to encounter one another by the side of a country lane on a lovely summer afternoon.
    The setting may seem bucolic, but the meaning has implications that apply to human interaction everywhere.


    Can you see why?

    I think this was a fine endeavor, and I agree with how you have broadened it and used it as a metaphor for situations Whittier many not have had in mind when he wrote it.

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    Replies
    1. The intent was to stimulate the imagination not scold or upbraid you or anyone else, Kurt, and it was certainly not my desire to try to force my particular interpretation on anyone, though I do still believe it deserves a modicum of respect and dispassionate consideration.

      I had hoped to engender enough CURIOSITY to get other to try to see WHY I used the device of making Maud a Negress.

      Perhaps I was a teacher too long, and can't get over it? At any rate the ideas I suggested were meant as a form of Study Questions and hopefully a springboard for discussion.

      I admit the responses received both yesterday and today have for the most part been very disappointing -- not what I had in mind at all, -- although I loved Fannie and Samuel's satirical takeoffs on Whittier's earnest, heartfelt original. There's always room in my heart for a bit of fun -- especially when it's clever.

      By the way, I took AOW's advice and read the WIKI article on John Greenleaf Whittier about whom I knew very little. My idea of using Maud as a symbolic stand in for a lovely young colored girl may not have been so far-fetched after all.

      Whittier, a pious Quaker, was an ardent abolitionist and early activist for Civil Rights, Social Equity, and most of the causes that became so nettlesome and overblown in the late twentieth century after the members of the Frankfurt School started to exploit them for nefarious purposes of their own.

      At any rate what we most regrettably call "Social Justice" today was very much on Whittier's mind throughout his long life. In fact the main thrust of his career was not writing poetry so much as engaging passionately and vociferously in Social Reform. He was in today's parlance an activist.

      At any rate I'm sorry I ruffled your feathers. 'Twas not my intent.

      PEACE!

      Delete
  9. Sometime a banana is just a banana ;)

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    Replies
    1. Possibly to botanists, but not to lawyers, psychologists, sociologists -- and especially not to poets.

      You've reminded me of a famous quote. Wish I could remember who said it first. Maybe you'll know.

      "A woman is only woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."

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    2. I think you have that backwards. I used to tease my brother that there were two types of trees, deciduous and Christmas. If I go for a walk in the woods, I see trees and bushes... he however sees black oak, bur oak, cherrybark oak, laurel oak, live oak, Oregon white oak, overcup oak, post oak, pin oak, northern red oak, southern red oak... well you get the idea. He'd see something unusual or rare and ask me if I knew what it was, my typical response would be "Yeah...it's a tree". ;)

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    3. I just hope your brother didn't see all those different varieties of oak in one patch of woods! That might indicate he has problems. };-)>

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