|Posted on September 27, 2011 at 5:05 AM|
Elma Mitchell’s poem, Thoughts After Ruskin, is a unique portrait of women. It is not about a particular woman, but rather the nature and manner of women within a domestic setting. It depicts domestic life with a gritty, violent urgency that goes against the idealised view of femininity and grace. The poem’s title is addressing John Ruskin, and other male poets, who romanticise the nature of women; and contrasts their flowery language with a harsh reality. This essay will examine the voice, imagery, sound, and language Mitchell employs throughout the piece; and how they can be used to further our understanding and interpretation of the poem.
The voice of Thoughts After Ruskin is defiant. It begins by challenging the traditional vision of women. It argues that—far from the perfume of flowers—women remind them of “blood and soap”. The tone then turns more frantic, as it delves into “the terrible chemistry of the kitchen”. It lists a series of forceful verbs (“gutting”/“stuffing”/ “scalding”) that paint an image of aggression, which directly confronts Ruskin’s sweet-natured archetype. The voice of the poem changes again for the start of the second stanza, imbuing a sense of mockery as it depicts the delicacy of their absent husbands. It further derides the notion that their “tender” wives are safe at home, when really they are working their hands bloody to create the illusion of peace and comfort. The voice again returns to a frenzied tone as it pours through all the hidden brutality of domestic minutia; the “killing” and “scouring”. The voice increases in volume with the third stanza. It describes the image of a woman with exclamation (!), which complements the language itself; using the words “huge” and “massive” to again distil this romantic image of female delicacy. As the poem closes, the voice calms down. Like the women in the poem, the narrator “sigh[s] a little” and returns to the illusion of “lilies and roses”. Though the subject and author of the poem are female, the narrator’s gender is never elaborated on. It could be a child, watching their mother slave over a kitchen. It may also be a collection of memories. It might be Mitchell herself, speaking directly to the reader, or indeed to the ghost of Ruskin.
The imagery of the poem is messy and quite brutal. It paints women with an almost militant brush; “armed” and “assaulting”. The poem describes the violence and urgency of domestic tasks, as well as the physical toll they take on housewives. The opening stanza lists a series of verbs—“cutting”, “gutting”, “stuffing”, “roiling”—which transform the serene kitchen into a place of fierce activity and “terrible chemistry”. The imagery is used to refute this tranquil picture of femininity and domesticity. The second contrasts this new image of women with the feigned prestige (“lean[ing] across mahogany”) and delicate nature of men. Here the poem is addressing the theme of illusion. In art and culture men are depicted as strong and aggressive, while women are depicted as gentle and graceful. The poem is showing that both these stereotypes are illusions; that women can be just as strong and violent, while men can display a placid temperament. The imagery continues its violent descriptions of “killing” creatures and “twisting” rags. The poem describes the women’s hands as red and white with bruises. The harshness of the verbs almost leaves the reader with a sense of exhaustion, since we can picture the “scrubbing” and “wringing” in our minds, and feel the endlessness and thanklessness of domestic chores. The images can become quite sickening at times too, as we are exposed to spiders and mice; vomit and excretion, and bloody hands. We can smell the filth and mess, and the desperation to clean it all away.
The poem begins with a rhyming quatrain (ABAC) to fit Ruskin’s traditional image, before descending away from dainty metaphor into gritty free verse. The rest of the poem offers very little rhyming structure, beyond the occasional half-rhyme (“odours”/”roses”). Lines tend to be 9 to 11 syllables each (5 feet), maintaining an even rhythm. As mentioned above the poem is full of doing words, and the first two stanza’s are obsessed with the constant and frantic activity of housewives. The harsh sounding words—“gutting”, “stabbing”, “killing”, “zipping”—operate with a mechanical drive. They would seem to fit better in a warzone than a kitchen. The physical description of women is also quite subversive, as we are used to their beauty and delicacy being praised. Here we get the harsh reality – the “bloody passages” and “hairy crannies”. The description of “huge hands” and “everywhere eyes” draws the reader back to childhood, when an omnipotent mother loomed over the household. The poem ends with a “sit and sigh” with the women putting on their masks; “their essence of lilies and roses”. Again, the poem returns to illusions. Despite their nature, women themselves perpetuate this image of grace and purity.
Mitchell’s Thoughts After Ruskin reflects a women’s traditional day, which is bookended with illusion (“lilies and roses”), but is a ferocious whirl of activity in between. It is a messy, violent description of domestic tasks and motherhood, and succeeds in depicting a type of feminism rarely explored. Mitchell’s poem ends with the women applying their makeup and perfume, just in time for their men to show up. They are forced to invert their true essence in order to be in harmony with their masculine counterpart.