Last night’s elections shambled on into the wee hours of the morning, as ties were loosened and un-heeled feet were stretched, but this morning has been unfolding slowly with the sweet savor of success. Though, the celebration will not progress past the consummation of a piece of red velvet cake for breakfast, as it is time to capitalize on the fresh energy. But first, a complex poem to stimulate the mind:
Pathedy of Manners
by: Ellen Kay
At twenty she was brilliant and adored,
Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance;
Captured symbolic logic and the glance
Of men whose interest was their sole reward.
She learned the cultured jargon of those bred
To antique crystal and authentic pearls,
Scorned Wagner, praised the Degas dancing girls,
And when she might have thought, conversed instead.
She hung up her diploma, went abroad,
Saw catalogues of domes and tapestry,
Rejected an impoverished marquis,
And learned to tell real Wedgwood from a fraud.
Back home her breeding led her to espouse
A bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real.
They had an ideal marriage, and ideal
But lonely children in an ideal house.
I saw her yesterday at forty-three,
Her children gone, her husband one year dead,
Toying with plots to kill time and re-wed
Illusions of lost opportunity.
But afraid to wonder what she might have know,
With all that wealth and mind had offered her,
She shuns conviction, choosing to infer
Tenets of every mind except her own.
A hundred people call, though not one friend,
To parry a hundred doubts with nimble talk.
Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk
Alone in brilliant circles to the end.
Poetry, and all language for that matter, requires interpretation. The careful reading and understanding of a poem is a silent conversation between the poet and the reader, transcending time itself. “Pathedy of Manners” is a modern twist on the relatable and classic “what might have been” story; it even serves as a cautionary tale. The language is pregnant with connotation and double meaning thus more effectively painting the linguistic portrait. The overarching meaning of the poem is to demonstrate that lack of personal conviction, simply going through the motions of your given life, makes for a long trip alone.
The title itself, “Pathedy of Manners”, is loaded with meaning. With the Greek parents of a dramatic form “comedy of manners and the prefix “path-” (think pathetic, sympathetic), the title draws upon the comical yet pitiful storyline of the poem. It sets the stage for the tone of the author, which is one of hilarity yet also empathy as the subject of the poem falls into the trap of society. The subject seems to do everything ideally in the eyes of the culture, yet “she shuns conviction,” and therefore the ending is unhappy, and we are pulled in to pity her.
There is a spring of the subject’s life story which occurs from line 1-16. One instantaneously gathers that the subject is an “it girl” or social butterfly, “brilliant and adored,/Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance” (2-3). “She learned the cultured jargon of those bred/To antique crystal and authentic pearls”; she was privileged with a remarkably good education and really lived for the worldly things of this life. But following the classic blueprint, we catch hints of foreboding folly: “and when she might have thought, conversed instead.” Finally, she comes back home from her international outing, and settles down for “a bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real” who was most definitely approved of by her well-to-do parents. The second appearance of “pearl” is significant. Not only does it call to mind the previously mentioned well-breeding of her company, but additionally the pearl may act as a symbol for the bride and groom themselves who are glossed over and polished up but whose souls are naught but a humble grain of sand. Ideal, ideal, ideal and then the reader notices the “lonely children in an ideal house” (16). Not only are the parents caught up with their own social life, but the cycle of going through the motions and loneliness is passed down. The innocent children will undoubtedly be affected by their parents’ emptiness.
And then, when the perfect little showcase family is stripped away, the reader gets a first-hand account of the sad subject, “toying with plots to kill time and re-wed/ Illusions of lost opportunity.” In short, she chose the easy way. She chose to life the life that was handed to her; now “she shuns conviction”, as her meaning and purpose were lost in her manners. All that she lived for, the dances, the childish things, are long gone, making old age a burden rather than a blessing. She put all her efforts into ephemeral appearances and failed to find meaning in them. “Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk/ Alone in brilliant circles to the end,” the last part of the poem follows when all the pretty little building blocks fade away and our poor friend is left with fake, fluffy surroundings.
The poem is not about radical change, but rather about building up nice things and then peeling them away. How familiar we are with this pattern! The ironic, circular aspect of the poem is emphasized by the repetition of the word “brilliant” in the first and last lines. And yet there lives on hope in this pathetic comedy, as she may escape from her self-imposed prison yet and live to pursue a deeper life.