Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Edwardiana' By Geraldine Clarkson


An inch or two skimmed from her twill skirt
and the day shaped perfectly in her head:
seamless tennis, swimming, a cycle down the lane
and up, rondeau of elevenses with aunts,
then two loops unhooked from her corset
for patriotic postprandial singing round the piano,
the map of England shaved perfectly on her head.
Strong tea in thin-lipped china, a cake-stand charged
with madeleines and buttered teabreads – mountains ! –
shared perfectly by her bed: a long ramble
with a newish lover, in slant-lit gardens,
mallow weighting the air, and under row after row
of high-arching yew, yards and yards
of shadow waiting perfectly up ahead.

Nothing compromises the ‘seamless’ and comforting accoutrements of a middle class Edwardian afternoon better than the intrusion of context and hindsight. If Geraldine Clarkson’s fine sonnet/pastiche had been written in 1912, and with the innocent brio of Rupert Brooke, it might have been received as a paean to the ironclad social certainties of an age.

But Clarkson’s celebrant is illusory: if ‘Edwardiana’ is as seductively charged as the groaning cake-stand, and as energetic as Betjeman’s hymn to Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, then we learn, in the poet’s skilled, subtle insinuation of darker suggestion, that the world is neither England-shaped, nor as enduringly protective as ‘row after row of high-arching yew’. The teleology of the girl’s universe – repetition of the word ‘perfectly’ throughout the poem picks away with heavy and deliberate irony at an assumed sense of order – is one of endless entertainment, propriety, and obedience to the blandishments of an insouciantly opulent ruling class. The plenteousness of Clarkson’s picture is directly contradicted by our knowledge of the contemporary working class existence; we are obliged to propose an empty plate of the imagination next to the ‘mountains’ of madeleines, because the reality of the girl’s life is both rarefied and unrepresentative.

And most of all the yews’ shadow, whose ‘reassuring’ presence in the near distance signals not so much an open path to a hopeful future, as the road to 1914, for the Edwardian elite were sowing the seeds of war in the manicured gardens of Kent and Surrey in measures of evasion and manipulation. That the big guns of Flanders would occasionally rattle the ‘thin-lipped’ china on well-tended Home Counties lawns was the closest intimation of conflict that many would encounter, except for the now conspicuous absence of the lover, and the daily casualty lists in The Times.

‘Edwardiana’ is taken from Declare and is reproduced with the kind permission of Shearsman Books.

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