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Ellen Kay's "Pathedy of Manners"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Ellen Kay

Introduction and Text of "Pathedy of Manners"

The term, "pathedy," conjoins the terms "comedy," as in the type of play called "comedy of manners," and "pathetic," which is the conclusion drawn by the speaker about the life of her subject.

The speaker in Ellen Kay's "Pathedy of Manners," which consists of seven rimed stanzas, evaluates the life of a former acquaintance. This flawed piece is, unfortunately, based of stereotypes and clichés—those two banes of a writer's, especially a poet's, existence.

The problem with the portrayal of this poor little rich girl is that it is painted by a person who knew the wealthy woman at age twenty and then did not see her again until the privileged woman was forty-three. Yet the speaker expects her readers/listeners to accept this pathetic portrayal as factual.

This piece sneers at this woman and draws conclusions regarding her life, about which it is impossible for the narrator to know. The speaker, who essentially victimizes her subject, has not been an actual observer of her victim's life; there is no way she can truthfully draw the conclusions that she draws. Those fabricated conclusions are ridiculous clichés that too many readers in a postmodernist, postfeminist literary world are apt to accept without sufficient thought.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Pathedy of Manners

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 known
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.

Reading of "Pathedy of Manners"

Commentary

The woman's life in the poem is deemed by the speaker to be without value, even pitiable, even though the intelligent woman has a first class education and is from the upper class in social status.

First Stanza: A Likely Enough Scenario, at First

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.

Readers, at first, will be open to the claims made by the speaker, because until the fifth stanza, they are tricked into thinking that this information is coming from an omniscient source or perhaps a source intimate with the subject, a sister or cousin. So it is easy to accept that the subject was indeed "brilliant and adored," and very intelligent in school and popular with the opposite sex.

Second Stanza: Class Struggle

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.

The speaker continues to portray the upper class qualities that the woman enjoyed: she was able to recognize "antique crystal and authentic pearls," and she knew the deficiencies of "[Richard] Wagner," whose anti-Semitism tarnished his reputation.

This sneer at the wealthy young woman for "scorn[ing] Wagner" implies that her conservative values offend radical feminist ideology that embraces the socialist, Wagnerian stance. The speaker then adds a dig that the young woman spoke when she should have thought first, which would indeed be a personality flaw.

Third Stanza: Trivial Accomplishments

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.

The woman after college traveled to Europe as many upper-class young ladies were wont to do. She manages to reject a poverty stricken marquis, but she learns to recognize "real Wedgwood" against a fake. These trivial accomplishments implies the shallowness of the so-called privileged class.

Fourth Stanza: As the Speaker Obfuscates

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.

After the young educated woman of privilege returns home from abroad, she marries. The speaker ridicules her by ironically stating that the woman "had an ideal marriage, and ideal / But lonely children in an ideal house."

At this point, the reader has to wonder why the children were "lonely" if the marriage, the children, and the house were "ideal." If the children were "lonely," they would not likely be considered"ideal." The attempt here is to wax ironic, in hopes that the reader will infer that "ideal" at best means ideal in outward appearances.

Fifth Stanza, Sixth, Seventh Stanzas: Fabrication Based on Stereotypes

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 known
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.

The speaker/poet makes a rather unfortunate flub by inserting herself into her story. After not interacting with the woman for twenty-three years, the speaker then reconnects with her and miraculously manages to recover the woman's entire life, not only the details but also what they mean.

Such a situation is impossible. The speaker cannot know what she now claims; thus she concocts an unbelievable tale so beloved by the postmodern, statist, (mistakenly labeled "liberal") mind.

And that the speaker's conclusion that the woman has wasted her life, has no friends, but "a hundred people will call" her, and "she will walk / Alone in brilliant circles to the end," is an absurd fantasy. The speaker has fabricated a tale about a woman's life based solely on gender and class bias and stereotype. Such contrivance is beneath the dignity of a poetry.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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