Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"The Soonest Mended, Nothing Said"

"Least said, soonest mended" is a proverb that I had not heard of until I came across the following poem by Christina Rossetti.  One of the earliest versions of the proverb appeared in John Heywood's Three Hundred Epigrams Upon Three Hundred Proverbs in 1562:  "little said, soon amended."  Rossetti's version appears in the first line of her poem.

Given the subject matter of the poem, "mending" (as in the mending of fishing nets) gives the proverb an added resonance.  Further, Rossetti's use of "nothing said" (rather than "least said" or "little said") establishes a theme of silence that works its way gracefully (and movingly) through the entire poem.

                   Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "The Old Harbour"

               A Fisher-Wife

The soonest mended, nothing said;
     And help may rise from east or west;
But my two hands are lumps of lead,
     My heart sits leaden in my breast.

O north wind swoop not from the north,
     O south wind linger in the south,
Oh come not raving raging forth,
     To bring my heart into my mouth;

For I've a husband out at sea,
     Afloat on feeble planks of wood;
He does not know what fear may be;
     I would have told him if I could.

I would have locked him in my arms,
     I would have hid him in my heart;
For oh! the waves are fraught with harms,
     And he and I so far apart.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

           Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Fishing Boats, Mevagissey" (1954)


Bovey Belle said...

I have to say what little I have read of Christina Rossetti a little depressing (not difficult!) but this flows nicely and does have SOME hope in it! The first two lines of the last stanza quite sums up how I feel about our son, travelling alone in Europe as I write although I am pretty certain he is having the time of his life!

Lovely paintings, as always.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for the thoughts.

I understand what you are saying about Rossetti -- that was my first impression of her as well. As I read more of her poetry, her humor became more evident. I'm not saying that it is a dominant part of her poetry, but it is there.

More importantly -- in terms of understanding her character -- I'd say that more than half of her poems are what I would call "devotional." From our "modern" viewpoint, her religious beliefs may seem "quaint" or "old-fashioned," but those beliefs were perhaps the defining part of her life. This does not make her less "melancholy," but it does place things in a wider perspective.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tim Kendall said...

One of my favourite poems by John Ashbery is 'Soonest Mended'---http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177260---but apart from its title it has nothing in common with Rossetti.

Stephen Pentz said...

Tim: thank you for the reference to the Ashbery poem, and for the link to it. (And I apologize for the delayed response.) It is nice to see an old homily making its way into the modern world.

I'm afraid that I'm one of those who has never been able to make head or tail out of Ashbery's poetry, so I'm unable to offer an opinion on the poem itself, however.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.