Two Old Women
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to God who is all-forgiving to send down
some angel somewhere who might land perhaps
in his foreign wings among the gradual crops.
She munched, half dead, blindly searching the spoon.
Outside, the grass was raging. There I sat
imprisoned in my pity and my shame
that men and women having suffered time
should sit in such a place, in such a state
and wished to be away, yes, to be far away
with athletes, heroes, Greek or Roman men
who pushed their bitter spears into a vein
and would not spend an hour with such decay.
‘Pray God,’ he said, ‘we ask you, God,’ he said.
The bowed back was quiet. I saw the teeth
tighten their grip around a delicate death.
And nothing moved within the knotted head
but only a few poor veins as one might see
vague wishless seaweed floating on a tide
of all the salty waters where had died
too many waves to mark two more or three.
Iain Crichton Smith wrote a number of poems with the title Old Woman. They vary quite a lot in their approach to the subject, much like a painter might depict the same subjects in different tones and colours, and from different points of view.
The first of the Old Woman poems presented here is a meditation on death. The subject of the poem is introduced to us in an advanced state of old age. She is sick, having to be spoon-fed mashed up food (potatoes, probably) by her husband while he holds her upright with his free hand. We realise we are spying on this old couple, on a very private sight – their prayers, their suffering – thanks to the poet/ narrator. He appears in verse 3, tells us he is outside, sitting on the “raging” grass, “imprisoned in [his] pity and [his] shame.” We are then allowed to share in his views of death as inspired by contemplation of the old woman.
The mood of the poem is necessarily dismal. Such a treatment of death rarely calls for a jaunty vocabulary. A cursory glance at the kinds of words being used in the opening stanzas clue us into the kind of mood established here: droop, dull, ignorance, gradual, half dead, blindly. The word ‘old’ is repeated twice in the first verse. Age and death – they are inextricable, really. Time is not seen positively, indeed it is something to be suffered. And the end of all the suffering shall be “to sit in such a place, in such a state”.
What other themes are at work here? Religion pops up, in the prayers of the woman’s husband. But the angel, God’s representative, is considered alien to this culture or environment as it is said to have “foreign wings”. It is something from a far away place – perhaps religion is something that is perceived by the poet to reside elsewhere. The old couple seem to have been deserted in their suffering by any kind of benign deity. There is also a reluctance to name the angel as a bringer of death – it is only referred to as “some” angel, yet it is clearly invoked as a way for the old woman to be released from her suffering.
The theme of ‘elsewhere’ also occurs – from the “foreign wings” of the angel, to the “Greek or Roman” “athletes or heroes”. The speaker in the poem is wishing himself into a different life, a life where you live fast and die young, where life is lived to the full, and morbidity, “decay”, are not tolerated. Why “Greek or Roman” men? Perhaps the narrator wants us to consider life in a Scottish community and the desperate cries of suffering and pleas to God we hear there, and draw some kind of parallel with the great civilisations of the past, where Christianity was born and grew up. Certainly, the reference introduces a classical, even mythical, element to the poem. The past is seen as somewhere better, somewhere more heroic.
The speaker, however, is stuck there. He may wish himself elsewhere, but he is as much of the land he inhabits as the dying woman. There is an unsettled feeling about the poem which may reflect the speaker’s unsettled nature. The land is described contrastingly: the crops about him are “gradual”, in sharp contrast to the grass, which is “raging”. The speaker describes himself as “imprisoned in my pity and my shame”, but the subjects who bring out these feelings in him have none of his self-awareness – they simply get on with the business of survival, and suffering, as best they know how. It is perhaps this self-awareness, this knowledge of cultures and times beyond the here and now (the “Greek and Roman men”) that causes his ‘imprisonment’. And the sea, which in poetry so often carries people away, is often a harbinger of adventure and travel, here in this poem carries merely “vague wishless seaweed”. Perhaps he senses his own death.
There is some semblance of structure and unity of form going on in the poem here, but, apart from the clearly delineated four line stanzas, it is not immediately obvious. First of all, rhyme scheme takes a while to make itself clear: the first verse certainly employs only half-rhymes (“plate/ prayed” and “fence/ ignorance”) which we may well miss first time around. The rhyming is inconsistent throughout the poem, varying from the strong “see/ three” and “said/ head”, to words which rhyme very obliquely such as “teeth/ death” and “shame/ time”, yet there is a perceptible pattern abba at work in the poem.
Similarly with metre we can identify a pattern, but not one that is held with any consistency. The lines are almost all of 10 syllables, with some notable exceptions, namely the first line of verse 3 “and wished to be away, yes, to be far away” which is 12 syllables, its obvious irregularity draws our attention to the meaning. The lines follow no identifiable metrical pattern.
Are these formal difficulties somehow indicative of the speaker’s unsettled mental state?
Your thorned back
heavily under the creel
you steadily stamped the rising daffodil.
Your set mouth
forgives no-one, not even God’s justice
perpetually drowning law with grace.
Your cold eyes
watched your drunken husband come
unsteadily from Sodom home.
Your grained hands
dandled full and sinful cradles.
You built for your children stone walls.
Your yellow hair
burned slowly in a scarf of grey
wildly falling like mountain spray.
Finally you’re alone
among the unforgiving brass,
the slow silences, the sinful glass.
Who never learned,
not even aging, to forgive
our poor journey and our common grave
while the free daffodils
wave in the valleys and on the hills
the deer look down with their instinctive skills,
and the huge sea
in which your brothers drowned sings slow
over the headland and the peevish crow.
It is a very different old woman we meet in this poem. Not hunched over in death, but twisted in another way. It is not a flattering portrait by any means. What are we meant to make of such a description? Is it not too extreme to take seriously? Look at the first lines of the first five verses: “your thorned back . . . your set mouth . . . your cold eyes . . . your grained hands . . . your yellow hair.” What a monster!
But what has made her like this? What life has she had to endure? Surely a woman with such a hard and ugly exterior must have some redeeming qualities? We don’t find too many of them in the opening verses. A woman who “steadily [stamps] daffodils” is not one we warm to quickly.
What has set her mouth so hard? There is a Biblical anger towering over everything in the poem. The poet draws from a lexicon which includes words like: Sodom, sinful (twice), unforgiving – the word ‘forgive’ appears in the 7th verse, but it is attached to the phrase “never learned to”. There is also a lexicon of nature working in the poem. This includes hard, harsh elements such as: stone, burned, wildly, mountain, (huge) sea, which are closely associated with the old woman. Simple household objects are given added significance by the unusual adjectives which describe them: her cradles are “sinful”; her “yellow” (strangely, not blonde) hair “burned”; in her home the brasses are “unforgiving” and the glass also “sinful”. The nature theme, introduced in verse one by the daffodils stamped on by the old woman, is extended later in the poem where we again find daffodils, also deer. In this poem, as elsewhere in Smith’s poetry, the deer symbolise a wild, untamed yet beneficent presence. It looks, but it does not judge. The deer’s “instinctive skills” contrast sharply with the heavily religious kind of knowledge that has obliterated all feeling in the woman. She in one who has forgotten her own “instinctive skills”.
But is the old woman herself really the subject of such scorn and criticism or is she the symbol through which Smith attacks some larger force at work in this community? As suggested by the opening verse where we are given what looks to be a critical and unflattering portrait of a bitter old woman – but when we reflect, we notice that there is a creel on her back, heavy, causing her to hunch over and presumably cause her to be careless about her step. This is tough physical work. Look what it has done to her.
What else? She has a drunken, and most likely, abusive husband. She is no lady of leisure, as indicated by her “grained hands”. But what of the “stone walls” she built for her children? Does she show them no love? Finally, she finds herself alone, barricaded from all feeling. She has walled herself in as much as she has shut everybody else out, including her children.
She is the product of her community. She has been created by the difficult living conditions that have given her a “thorned back” and grained hands, that have taken her brothers and drowned them at sea. But she has refused to see beyond that narrow way of living, she has refused to “forgive/ our poor journey and our common grave”. In other words, she has looked down too much on her fellow creatures with scorn and bitter judgement. In contrast, the deer and the daffodils, who share this harsh landscape with her, look down on the village and its people, but much more passively, naturally, instinctively. They do what they do; they live, exist, with nature. The suggestion is that the old woman could have these “instinctive skills” too, but is prevented from ever acquiring them, indeed she may not even know she possesses them because of “God’s justice/ perpetually drowning law with grace.” The harshness of God’s law, and its over-zealous application, prevents us achieving the grace of a natural state of being.