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Day-Lewis and Larkin; on age

November 8, 2012

My Mother’s Sister by Cecil Day-Lewis tells the story of Agnes Squires.

When Cecil’s mother, Kathleen, died when he was four, Agnes came over from Ireland to help his father Frank look after him. She stayed for ten years until Frank eventually remarried, at which point she was unceremoniously sent home, all chance of marriage and children gone.

Did they have a closer relationship? Two red-blooded young adults together so long – it surely crossed their minds. But he was a parish priest, times were different, and perhaps sex was unthinkable.  Cecil’s son Sean thinks the law against marrying the sister of your deceased wife restrained them, but that can’t be right. The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act allowed such marriages in 1907, the year before Kathleen died. Maybe the church retained the prohibition? Who knows? Here’s the poem.

My Mother’s Sister

I see her against the pearl sky of Dublin
Before the turn of the century, a young woman
With all those brothers and sisters, green eyes, hair
She could sit on; for high life, a meandering sermon

(Church of Ireland) each Sunday, window-shopping
In Dawson Street, picnics at Killiney and Howth…
To know so little about the growing of one
Who was angel and maid-of-all work to my growth!

– Who, her sister dying, took on the four-year
Child, and the chance that now she would never make
A child of her own; who, mothering me, flowered in
The clover-soft authority of the meek.

Who, exiled, gossiping home chat from abroad
In roundhand letters to a drift of relations –
Squires’, Goldsmiths, Overends, Williams’ – sang the songs
Of Zion in a strange land. Hers the patience

Of one who made no claims, but simply loved
Because that was her nature, and loving so
Asked no more than to be repaid in kind.
If she was not a saint, I do not know

What saints are…Buying penny toys at Christmas
(The most a small purse could afford) to send her
Nephews and nieces, sh’d never have thought the shop
Could shine for me one day in Bethlehem splendour.

Exiled again, after ten years, my father
Remarrying, she faced the bitter test
Of charity – to abdicate in love’s name
From love’s contentful duties. A distressed

Gentle woman housekeeping for strangers;
Later, companion to a droll recluse
Clergyman brother in rough-pastured Wexford,
She lived for all she was worth – to be of use.

She bottled plums, she visited parishioners.
A plain habit of innocence, a faith
Mildly forbearing, made her one of those
Who, we were promised, shall inherit the earth

… Now, sunk in one small room of a Rathmines
Old people’s home, helpless, beyond speech
Or movement, yearly deeper she declines
To imbecility – my last link with childhood.

The battery’s almost done: yet if I press
The button hard – some private joke in boyhood
I teased her with – there comes upon her face
A glowing of the old, enchanted smile.

So, still alive, she rots. A heart of granite
Would melt at this unmeaning sequel, Lord,
How can this be justified, how can it
Be justified?

Especially for those who know the story, this is both angry and moving. The alteration in rhyme scheme as she reaches the old people’s home underscores the downward shift in even her disappointing life. But the anger of the ending is forced.

Compare a similar poem about age, in this case widowhood, by Philip Larkin

Love Songs in Age

She kept her songs, they kept so little space,
The covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
And coloured, by her daughter –
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord
Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
That hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,

The glare of that much-mentionned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.

The final lines say so much less than Day Lewis’s – and so much more.

Jim Thornton

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