"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Jean Earle, the Wordsworths and Honesty

Dove Cottage



If metaphor works by transference of an ideal quality to a material object, metonymy works by transference between two material objects. There will always be some porosity between them but I think this is a good enough working definition of the difference between these two categories of figurative language. I want now to look at metonymy as an intermediate case between simile and metaphor.

In her poem ‘Honesty’, Jean Earle records her feelings about having been given a seed of the honesty flower collected from the garden of Dove Cottage, where Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived and which is now a museum. Jean Earle’s poetry characteristically displays a sophisticated use of the ‘naïve’ style. In her poem about the painting ‘Chasse au Tigre” by the ‘naïve’ painter Jean-Baptist Giraud (a detail from which appears on the cover of her
Selected Poems) she says that, in viewing such paintings, “we look for truth”. Her ‘truth-seeking’ in the poem ‘Honesty’ clearly includes the ironic sub-text that the seed was dishonestly obtained. But it is the deeper ‘honesty’ of the main text that I want to discuss. Here is the poem:

Honesty

Always a ‘snapper-up of trifles’ –
Jars from a skip,
those rubber bands
Postmen let fly –
Some sad kitten –
After her trip, she brought me such a thing,
A seed of honesty
From Wordsworth’s garden.

Had she any idea
How it pleased me? Only a tourist
At Dove Cottage had she ever heard
Of William and Dorothy

Who may well have trodden the soil
This seed sprang from ….

Sowing the scarlet beans; or when Dorothy
Set herbs by moonlight. When she worked alone,
Grieving for William – who had taken joy
Of their life together into his stern hold
And gone for Mary.

Intense and ardent hearts! The seed sent up
A thin stalk, has managed a few flowers
Of a sharp magenta. She who stole me this
Finds it not worth the snatch,
Having no clue
How eloquent to me – yes, as a friend’s dress
Seen against time and light,
Its colour is.

The first thing to note here is that the specific reference back is not to the poems of William but to his sister Dorothy’s
Grasmere Journal. The entry for 1 May 1802 begins: Rose not till ½ past 8 – a heavenly morning – as soon as breakfast was over we went into the garden & sowed the scarlet beans about the house”. This was less than six months before William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson to which the poem also alludes. Dorothy makes several references to the progress of the beans throughout the summer, including “The scarlet beans want sticking. The garden is overrun with weeds”, which immediately follows the recording of letters sent to Annette Vallon and Mary Hutchinson. Arrangements for the wedding and the settling of William’s affairs with Annette dominate the Journal from this point on, as do images of domestic dislocation.

Already, then, it is apparent that there are rich layers of meaning in Jean Earle’s poem. Its apparently artless narrative form, shifting suddenly from the original subject to the Wordsworths and then abruptly to “sowing the scarlet beans” begins a process of metonymic transfer that grows in quiet intensity as the poem develops. There are a number of specific tensions between the brother and sister who shared Dove Cottage which become apparent at this time which I have discussed elsewhere (*) But Dorothy was re-assured by William’s poem ‘Farewell’ which she describes as his “going for Mary” poem. Seen in that light Jean Earle’s “gone for Mary” loses some of its potential force. The life they shared in what is now known as Dove Cottage is not jettisoned by his “Farewell thou little nook of mountain ground” but is left in suspension until both brother and sister will return with “one to whom ye will be dear”. Dorothy records writing out the poem for William on 29 May and then writing to Mary. Her entry concludes: “A sweet day. We nailed up the honeysuckle and hoed the scarlet beans.”

Jean Earle’s poem, then, is rooted in Dorothy’s
Journal and the “dreams of flowers” evoked by William in the seclusion of Grasmere are imaginatively linked with the flower she has grown from a seed of honesty. The words of the brother and sister in 1802 resonate in the words of the modern poem which moves subtly backwards and forwards through time. The final change of direction occurs with the phrase “Intense and ardent hearts”, a reference back to the trio of William, Mary and Dorothy and the life they spent together. Jean Earle's own ‘honest’ response to the stolen seed and the “sharp magenta” flowers it produced brings the poem to a close. It is “eloquent” in expressing to her the colour of “a friend’s dress” and therefore familiar and suggestive of intimacy. The fact that it is “seen against time and light” must also affect our response here, particularly if we read it in the context of other poems by Jean Earle for whom light often suggests vision. Time adds depth to illumination. The seed provides a metonymic connection in the colour of its flower with the dress worn by Dorothy envisaged by Jean Earle as her friend.

The likelihood that the seed is a modern descendant of a plant growing there when the Wordsworths inhabited the cottage is remote. Jean Earle only says that they “may well have trodden the soil / The seed sprang from”. So what sort of honesty is attempted here by the poet who finds the magenta flowers “eloquent”? This takes us deeper into the poem’s ‘truth’. We can say that the flower represents the “intense and ardent hearts” of the Wordsworths, enabling the poet to engage with personal feelings of affiliation that the flower triggers. But, as suggestive as the idea of ‘re-presenting’ is, it doesn’t quite capture the organic link that the poet makes between herself and Dorothy. The colour the flower carries in embryo from its Dove Cottage source is “like a friend’s dress” because it brings the light of Dorothy’s life through time to the present. This is more than simile but less than metaphor which would, I suggest, lack honesty in this context. Metonymy here functions in linking the person who grew the flower with the person who wore the dress in a deeply ‘honest’ way in spite of the fact that the “eloquence” with which it does so may, like the way the seed was obtained, and – some might want to argue – the way the experience is constructed – be seen as ironically invoking dishonest practices. But there is no doubting the honesty of the poet in wishing to honour her friend in a poem the integrity of which is beyond question.



(*) 'Rich Layers of Meaning' in New Welsh Review No.33 Summer 1996 from which parts of this blog are adapted.