Stays and stanzas

There is nothing better, after a picnic by the Thames, than an arbitrary wander round a great art gallery.

The Tate Britain has on show set of nude sculptures, from Rodin to Hepworth. There are many ways of looking at the human body: and here are some of the most entrancing I have seen.

The woman with whom I feel most comfortable was fashioned by Frank Dobson, that Malliol-inspired British sculptor who cut his teeth on Cubism before settling to produce arresting human forms.

She is called ‘Truth. She is the epitome of grace, geometric and curved at the same time. sporting a spare hairstyle typical of the year of her creation-1930- and wearing no clothes whatsoever.

Truth itself.

Nudes have always been part of the artist’s expression. But elsewhere, for centuries, there seems to have been the feeling that the natural form simply wasn’t good enough.

Enter, the stay.

In earliest times, these were stiff, straight shields which turned the upper body into a cone. Remember those portraits of Elizabeth I? The ‘payre of bodies’ flattened the bust, and pushed the breasts up. Fetching , they were: the body came gift-wrapped and the waist was emphasised with full skirts flung out by a padded ‘farthingale’.

As time went on the waist got thinner, the skirts heavier and fuller. Empire style brought a welcome relief with the “short stay” which did not stretch far below the bust. But the Victorian era put paid to this with whalebone creations which were worn to emphasise a tiny waist.

Centuries of portraits show how beautiful these undergarments made one. To this day, the figures of our fairytales generally wear them; they are the shapes beneath princess dresses, mimicked in dressing up boxes across the globe.

They carry a structured, formal beauty which can be breathtaking.

Such is poetry.

There is one main difference, says the Oxford Dictionary, between poetry and prose. What sets prose apart from poetry is its meter.

But that meter can be a stifling schoolmistress or a dashing dancemaster. Some poets use the natural rise and fall of speech to mould their meaning; and some use a whalebone-corset form to create meaning of such artifice it fair takes one’s breath away.

Take the sonnet: it evolved from its birth in the thirteenth century, to that sophisticated Shakespearean scaffolding which dazzles us so. It has fourteen lines with roundabout ten syllables a line, in pairs which are unstressed-stressed. It has a strict rhyming structure: a-b-a-b,c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.

And what a graceful form she stands: pinch-waisted, exquisitely controlled. Here, with Shakespeare’s hands circling her waist:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken…

Ah, how comely that unforgiving form is on Shakespeare’s words! This pen-portrait of love has the serenity of the swan and the turbulence of a hurricane, but all with the grace of a pavane.

As the corset changes, so does meter alter under the pens of poets. It is restrictive to the point of literary masochism in the 17th century, it relaxes imperceptibly in the hands of 18th century poets, forsaking the payre-of-bodies sonnet for a more tripping rhythm. Here’s Blake:

How shall the summer arise in joy.
Or the summer fruits appear.
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy
Or bless the mellowing year.
When the blasts of winter appear.

The corset is there, all right: the natural rhythm of speech is bent to a form, even in the hands of this free-thinking visionary.

I have always loved this sketch ‘In a London Drawing Room’ by George Eliot, writing in the heart of nineteenth century London. She would have worn a fearsome corset indeed, but her words have eschewed rhyme and kept a simple ten syllables a line to sing the stifling social restrictions of the city.

The sky is cloudy, yellowed by the smoke.
For view there are the houses opposite
Cutting the sky with one long line of wall
Like solid fog: far as the eye can stretch
Monotony of surface and of form
Without a break to hang a guess upon.”

The literary stays, unlike those Victorian corsets, are loose here. But we’re not at Dobson’s Truth yet.

Here she is, in Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Bear Hug’.

Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I’m doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son’s room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal’s name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Dressed only in the God-given meter our speech stands up in. Buck-naked and proud.


With thanks as always to Side View, whose weekend theme this week is Poetry. You can find her challenge here

26 thoughts on “Stays and stanzas

  1. Some lovely poetry shared here. Thanks 🙂

    Sometimes my stays are self-imposed, but mostly I don’t wear them, letting the words spill out where they may.

    Great metaphor.

  2. I just brought home a pile of Mary Oliver and Molly Peacock from the library yesterday. Not much in the way of stays for them, either. I love “The Bear Hug”, Kate – and this post. Your talent for words and your wit continue to amaze and inspire me.

  3. Beautiful post, Kate.

    I’ve never worn corset, girdle, or stays.
    And I’m rather loose with my words as well.
    Still, restraint has its place . . .
    Or so I suppose.

  4. Oooh, that Ondjaate poem just gave me the tingles. I’m off to read some more…

    Years ago, somewhere fairly close to the Eiffel Tower, I happened across a museum garden full of Rodin sculptures. I’d not been paying attention to the guide books that afternoon, just wandering, and it was a wonderful discovery 🙂

  5. Wonderful post, Kate. I rather love The Bear Hug, thank you for sharing that one. I find that following the confines of form sometimes makes me a better writer, i.e. the next non form poem I write is oft rather good (ha!).

    Truth ~ never seen, why does she remind me of one of Gauguin’s girls? Lucky you, the Tate… someday, cheers ~

    1. It’s a little like Gaugin’s lovely picture of Madame Alexandre Kohler, I think, Angela. And Gaugin’s nudes have something similar, too, don’t they? Interesting that you feel the constricts of form help: I am utterly torn. They day I learnt about sprechgesang – the operatic movement which accords a singer their own natural meter, right there in the middle of the pomp of an opera – I could see the power of natural meter was huge. But a form is comforting to the heartbeat….

  6. Ah, the sonnet – my most beloved of the formal manifestations of poetry. Constraining, as the corset, perhaps – especially for a writer of rampant free verse – yet within the boundaries of its meter and rhyme there is a world of exquisite elegance. It’s a bit like topiary rather than natural growth. Loved this!

  7. “Some poets use the natural rise and fall of speech to mould their meaning; and some use a whalebone-corset form to create meaning of such artifice it fair takes one’s breath away.” – that expression takes mine, Kate – brilliant writing

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