Poem of the week

The Candle by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield brings a touch of her prose writing into her poetry, while creating a ‘direct line’ to sharp, unmediated experience

A candle

 ‘By my bed, on a little round table, the Grandmother places a candle’.Katherine Mansfield is rightly praised for her short stories. As a poet, however, she is virtually forgotten – ignored even – by the 20th century anthologists dedicated to the recovery and re-evaluation of neglected women poets. That’s why I didn’t expect much more than a literary curiosity when I picked up an elegant little 1930 edition of Poems by Katherine Mansfield in my local Amnesty bookshop.

Although the editor of this volume chose to remain anonymous, it seems to have been put together shortly after her death in 1923 (the date of the first edition) by her second husband, John Middleton Murry. The introduction refers to “a cottage on the shore of the Mediterranean where we lived in 1916”. This was the Villa Pauline, where “for the whole of one week we made the practice of sitting together after supper at a very small table in the kitchen, and writing verses on a single theme we had chosen”.

Mansfield had written poetry since the age of 19, much of it fed by the bright springs of her childhood in Karori, New Zealand. While the diction is sometimes childlike, even in her maturer poems, their “direct line” to sharp, unmediated experience guarantees them against affectation, and the reader warms to their sensuousness and apparent candour. They resemble no other poetry of their time, notwithstanding odd hints of the influence of D H Lawrence. Some, like In the Rangitaki Valley, are unguardedly joyous, , while others are sad and chilled, as the lament she wrote for her brother, Leslie Beauchamp, killed while training soldiers in the use of hand grenades, To L.H.B. (1894-1915).

The Candle is an early poem, interesting in its own right, and also because it clearly comes from the same imaginative space as the short story Prelude. Begun in 1915, and printed by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press as their debut publication three years later, Prelude is a third person, multiple viewpoint story – it is not told entirely from the point of view of the sensitive rebel child, Kezia, although this character forms the emotional touchstone. The Candle, which dates from 1909 or 1910, might almost be a practice run for Kezia’s interior monologue, and we can fairly assume the voice to be Mansfield’s own. Here, too, is the much-loved grandmother from Prelude – and the setting is surely the same mysterious, rambling countryside house to which, in the story, the family has just moved.

Mansfield sometimes uses regular rhyme schemes, but for The Candle she prudently chooses free verse. The narrative is spare, vivid and well paced, its many one-line sentences creating an effect of dramatic pauses. At first, the atmosphere is reassuring. But the shadow of an end-rhyme – “tucked/shut” – suggests the final click of the bedroom door, and signals a shift of atmosphere between lines four and five. Once the Grandmother has left, danger seems to seep into the room, leaving the child wondering if she has given away her three dreams in the form of three kisses. The idea is not perhaps merely fanciful: it could be the potent warning of a feminist myth. A woman who opts for the comforts of domestic love may have to relinquish her imaginative journeys.

The handling of the subsequent metamorphosis, in which familiar objects acquire menace in slightly comical, almost cartoonish ways, is masterly. Is the danger outside or in? The child, as a future writer, decides it’s “better to know” and bravely opens a slit in the blind.

The conclusion might seem to have a consolatory, faintly sentimental touch, but there is something a little off-key about the consolation. The stars are like candles “in remembrance” of the frightened children, an odd phrase which could suggest the children had died. The dreams start “singing a little song” – which is not quite what dreams are supposed to do. Are they perhaps deceptive, like the smiling jug on the water stand?

Mansfield’s stories avoid comfortable closure, and this poem, I think, just manages to pull off the same trick. Despite its cosy title, it seems to focus on the final intractability of childhood fears. Imaginative play shape-changes them, but the shape is never secure.

Ultimately, Mansfield is by far a greater poet in her prose, but her poetry has a special quality of its own, not least because the prose writer is there too, adding realistic details and rhythms that have the breath of life in them.

The Candle

By my bed, on a little round table,

The Grandmother placed a candle.

She gave me three kisses telling me they were three dreams

And tucked me in just where I loved being tucked.

Then she went out of the room and the door was shut.

I lay still, waiting for my three dreams to talk;

But they were silent.

Suddenly I remembered giving her three kisses back.

Perhaps, by mistake, I had given my three little dreams.

I sat up in bed.

The room grew big, oh, bigger far than a church.

The wardrobe, quite by itself, as big as a house.

And the jug on the washstand smiled at me:

It was not a friendly smile.

I looked at the basket-chair where my clothes lay folded:

The chair gave a creak as though it were listening for something.

Perhaps it was coming alive and going to dress in my clothes.

But the awful thing was the window:

I could not think what was outside.

No tree to be seen, I was sure,

No nice little plant or friendly pebbly path.

Why did she pull the blind down every night?

It was better to know.

I crunched my teeth and crept out of bed.

I peeped through a slit of blind.

There was nothing at all to be seen

But hundreds of friendly candles all over the sky

In remembrance of frightened children.

I went back to bed …

The three dreams started singing a little song.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/19/katherine-mansfield-the-candle-poem