Weekend Poem: In the Orchard by Muriel Stuart

So the Scots voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. And, of course, that makes sense. Despite their long, troubled history, Scottish and English people have migrated across borders and lived side-by-side for so long that ancestral lines of various generations have been tightly-woven together for centuries.

Like many such Scots, our poet today, Muriel Stuart, though born of a Scottish barrister and known as a Scottish poet due to her ancestry, lived in England all her life (London and Berkshire.) And she was well-regarded by many illustrious peers like Thomas Hardy. Remarkably, she did not stick to poetry as a lifelong vocation, giving it up for a deeper love — of gardening. Yet her poems are, as Hardy put it once, “superlatively good.”

This selection might not be considered a poem by some. It is composed entirely in dialogue form between a pair of lovers. Still, the musicality of the conversation, the story that the poem unfolds, the imagery that it presents, and the deeper truths that it reveals about human nature, all of these things do indeed make it rather wonderfully poetic. And though it makes use of some rhyme and rhyming couplets, for the most part, it does not adhere to any particular poetic form, making it all the more singular even now, as it was when it first came out about hundred years ago or more.

Further, the poem is classic Stuart, in that it deals with one of her favorite subjects: sexual politics. The others were World War I and gardening. The theme here is unrequited love. And it is rather heartbreakingly sad how it unfolds. From the title and the poem, we gather that a young boy and girl are meeting in an orchard after an intimate tryst — one they had both approached and intended in entirely different ways. For him, it was all just a bit of fun. For her, it was love. Repeatedly, she asks him why he did what he did if he didn’t mean it. Time and again, he deflects — first, by blaming the bewitching moon, then her own beguiling looks and seductive dancing, and then how boys are just out for some light-hearted fun.

The girl does not quite get this “fun” he keeps referring to. She talks about how she has seen boys torture innocent animals quite cruelly and call it fun, giving us a sense of her own throbbing pain at being treated in a similar fashion.

About halfway into the poem, we finally get a peek into the boy’s rather vague and disordered mind when he tries to explain his idea of “fun” to her.

“It’s queer and lovely to have a girl . . .” “Go on.”
“It makes you mad for a bit to feel she’s your own,
“And you laugh and kiss her, and maybe you give her a ring,
“But it’s only in fun.”

When she responds with how she, in turn, gave him everything, his response is, at best, cold and callous. He tells her that she shouldn’t have done so because boys don’t think well of such girls anyway and how, in fact, he thought she was just like “the rest.”

In the last few lines, her anguish is plain to see for all but the very dense. And, his inability to do anything to make her feel better, never mind feel a tad bit guilty about what he has reduced her to makes him, if not necessarily dense, certainly unworthy of any sympathy. He talks casually about the weather and how he’ll see her at the dance next week. When she cannot resist asking for a kiss as they part, his “Good night” is, no doubt, like a slap in the face for her. Her resigned”Good night” in return is more than just a grieved acceptance. It is the lingering echo that has been exchanged between many such star-crossed couples through the ages, including in present times. And though the gender of the person who is jilted does vary, the way in which this particular game plays out is pretty much the same for both men and women.

With that, let me leave off any further analysis as anyone who has experienced unrequited love will have their own unique experience of the dialogues in this poem, which its carefully-wrought structure and very personal tone encourages.

In the Orchard

“I THOUGHT you loved me.” “No, it was only fun.”
“When we stood there, closer than all?” “Well, the harvest moon
“Was shining and queer in your hair, and it turned my head.”
“That made you?” “Yes.” “Just the moon and the light it made
“Under the tree?” “Well, your mouth too”. “Yes, my mouth?”
“And the quiet there that sang like the drum in the booth.”
“You shouldn’t have danced like that.” “Like what?” “So close,
“With your head turned up, and the flower in your hair, a rose
“That smelt all warm.” “I loved you. I thought you knew.
“I wouldn’t have danced like that with any but you.”
“I didn’t know. I thought you knew it was fun.”
“I thought it was love you meant.” “Well, it’s done.” “Yes, it’s done.
“I’ve seen boys stone a blackbird, and watched them drown
“A kitten — it clawed at the reeds, and they pushed it down
“Into the pool while it screamed. Is that fun, too?”
“Well, boys are like that . . . Your brothers . . . ” Yes, I know.
But you, so lovely and strong! Not you! Not You!”
“They don’t understand it’s cruel. It’s only a game.”
“And are girls fun too?” “No, still, in a way, it’s the same.
“It’s queer and lovely to have a girl . . .” “Go on.”
“It makes you mad for a bit to feel she’s your own,
“And you laugh and kiss her, and maybe you give her a ring,
“But it’s only in fun.” “But I gave you everything.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have done it. You know what a fellow thinks
“When a girl does that.” “Yes, he talks of her over his drinks
“And calls her a-” “Stop that now. I thought you knew.”
“But it wasn’t with anyone else. It was only you.”
“How did I know?” “I thought you wanted it too.
“I thought you were like the rest. Well, what’s to be done?”
“To be done?” “Is it all right?” “Yes.” “Sure?” “Yes, but why?”
“I don’t know. I thought you were going to cry.
“You said you had something to tell me.” “Yes, I know.
“It wasn’t anything really . . . I think I’ll go.”
“Yes, it’s late. There’s thunder about, a drop of rain
“Fell on my hand in the dark. I’ll see you again
“At the dance next week. You’re sure that everything’s right?”
“Yes.” “Well, I’ll be going.” “Kiss me . . .” “Good night.” . . . “Good night.”

~ Muriel Stuart, ‘Poems: Twenty-Eight Great and Short Poems

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One thought on “Weekend Poem: In the Orchard by Muriel Stuart

  1. Just got into MS’s poetry. “In the last few lines, her anguish is plain to see for all but the most dense.” – or all but those on the autistic spectrum. They read the lines just as they are, and feel less than the rest of the poem, because earlier in the poem it is more clearly laid out…

    Now I (personally) feel that if a bloke did demonstrate the qualities the girl says she would like, that wouldn’t work either, because the whole affair would be too intense, and she wouldn’t be able to control the situation.

    Like

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