A couple of years ago one of my children was studying poetry in middle school English class, learning different types of rhyme/rhythm schemes.  The following poem was given as an example of a triolet (a form I had never heard of before).


O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

This poem was written by Frances Darwin Cornford.  Yes, she was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, and although she wrote other poems as well, this much-hated one is her present claim to fame.  G.K. Chesterton so loathed it that he penned this scathing reply:


Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

If you read the above link which explains what a triolet is, you will learn that Cornford’s poem is a perfect example, which is one reason it is quoted and remembered; another is that it makes people angry.  And I’m not really sure why that is.  Are people angry that the poet would make an assumption about someone based on what she observed in such a brief instant in time?  But isn’t it the poet’s–or any writer’s–prerogative to apply her imagination to whatever raw material she encounters? It’s not like she found out the woman’s name and told the world that she knows for a fact that no one loves this woman!

Maybe they are angry because the poem calls the woman fat, and they assume that the poet has decided it is her fatness that makes her unlovable.  Myself, I read “fat” as nothing more than a descriptor.  Plenty of fat women are loved, after all, both now and in Cornford’s time.

I read it differently, seeing the gloves as a metaphor for the woman’s refusal to engage with the messiness of life, which causes her to miss out on sensual experiences and therefore on love.  Gloves are too formal for a walk through the fields and suggest that this woman sees herself as separate from or above nature, perhaps someone who doesn’t wish to “get her hands dirty” by experiencing life and love.

What do you think?  Do you like the poem?  Or do you agree with Chesterton?


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