Book Review: Songs of a Housewife: Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Some years I go I saw, somewhere, a poem that I really loved. I looked up the author and found she had written a whole book of them, so I got it, I think possibly from a used book seller on Amazon. But it’s hard to just pick up a book of poems and start reading through, so it sat undisturbed on my bookshelf for a very long time. Then one day I saw it and noticed the author’s name again, and thought it looked a little familiar. I looked it up, and …yes, the author of Songs of a Housewife: Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was also the author of a book I dearly loved, The Yearling. So that put the book higher on my to-be-read list! I finally put it on my desk, where I’d pick it up in between doing other things and read a couple to a handful at a time.

Rodger L. Tarr edited the book and explains in the introduction that the poems were originally in a newspaper column that Rawlings wrote in the NY Rochester Times-Union between 1926 and 1928. He includes a few pictures of the column, which sported the icon and typeset he used on the cover. It came about at a time when newspapers wanted to expand beyond just the news and provide entertainment as well. They were published mostly six days a week over two years until she moved to Florida, resulting in some 495 poems, about half of which are published in this book.

Tarr goes into a brief history of her writing career (her first story was published when she was eleven) and family life. She was writing feature articles for the newspaper when she proposed a weekly poetry column for women, particular housewives. Her editor was “skeptical at first” (p. 4), but finally let her try. The poems became a “cultural phenomenon” (p. 1). Sometimes readers asked her for a poem on a specific subject.

She explained her perspective in an interview:

I was brought up to believe in the modern myth that housekeeping is only drudgery, and the housewife is a downtrodden martyr. I thought that any seemingly contented housewives were only ‘making the best of it.’ When I first began housekeeping in my own home, I felt that I had entered the ranks of the mistreated.

After a time I began to realize, to my amazement, that I didn’t feel at all downtrodden, and that I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I began to look at other domestic ‘martyrs’ from a new angle, and I have learned many things.

I have found that there is romance in housework: and charm in it; and whimsy and humor without end. I have found that the housewife works hard, of course–but likes it. Most people who amount to anything do work hard, at whatever their job happens to be. The housewife’s job is home-making, and she is, in fact, ‘making the best of it’; making the best of it by bringing patience and loving care to her work; sympathy and understanding to her family; making the best of it by seeing all the fun in the day’s incidents and human relationships.

The housewife realizes that home-making is an investment in happiness. It pays everyone enormous dividends. There are huge compensations for the actual labor involved…

There are unhappy housewives, of course. But there are unhappy stenographers and editresses and concert singers. The housewife whose songs I sing as I go about my work, is the one who likes her job (pp. 6-7).

She was writing at a time when feminism was coming to the fore, and she “was fully committed to a woman’s right to share equally in the workplace…Yet she also took the firm position that women who choose to stay home are also professionals” (p. 7).

Tarr divides the poems into six categories and at the bottom of each shares the date when it was originally published. They cover the gamut from cooking, family happenings, housework, friends and relatives, “philosophical nuggets,” and nature. Sometimes they express kind of a smiling frustration: usually they’re cheery.

The poem that started it all for me was “The Symphony of Supper-time”

I like the sound of silver
When the table’s being set,
In the early Winter twilight,
With the lamps unlighted yet.

I like to hear the kitchen door
Swing slowly out, and then,
When Mary passes, laden, through,
Swing slowly back again.

I like to hear the kettle sing;
The hissing of the roast;
The children coming in from play,
A hungry, noisy host.

I like to hear the murmurings
When my dessert appears.
The symphony of supper-time
Is music to my ears! (p. 35).

With so many poems so many days in a row, not all of them are winners. But I marked several that I particularly liked. Here are a few:

A Prayer for Housewives

Let me have endless patience, first of all,
And not grow weary when the quick doors slam,
Or when small fingers stain the new-washed wall.
Let me ignore the mud tracked o’er the jamb!

Let me be tireless, for the hours are long.
Let me be merry, when I want to weep.
And if my days may not move like a song,
Grant me, at night, the healing touch of sleep.

May I remember small, important things–
An empty cookie jar is such a crime!
Is it too much to pray at times for wings?
How else, some days, to have the meals on time!

And if there’s any fun to come my way,
Or any laughter due me, Lord, decree it!
And where there’s beauty in the every-day,
Oh, let me not be blinded! Let me see it! (p. 102).

“Mistress and House” begins:

A gracious mistress for this gracious place,
She moves in harmony with flowers and birds;
Her voice is gentle, filled with gentle words
And there is sunlight on her quiet face.

It ends with “She crowns its beauty with her womanhood” (p. 111).

In “Treasure,” she says she’ll let her son, Tom, off from chores for a bit because he’s deep into reading Treasure Island, and closes with

He treads the ground unseeing, starry-eyed;
Plays, eats and sleeps and studies in a trance.
His mind consorts with pirates and with ships,
In high adventure. He has found romance.

Not mine the voice to call him from the realm,
Where sailors’ parrots cry and silver gleams!
He has found treasure past life’s power to steal.
He’s keeping company, these days, with dreams (p. 155).

In “Aunt Ida’s Letters,” after discussing her “ramblings” and picturing what she looks like as she writes, she says:

And through her talk of life, and things,
The beauty of her spirit sings.
And when her letter-writing’s done,
There will be somehow less of sun (p. 156).

After describing “A Peaceful House,” she closes with:

I knock. And in the mistress’ eyes
The source of this sweet peace is seen.
Her love has made her calm and wise–
Her love has made this house serene (p. 191).

After discussing various aspects of dealing with “Old Clothes,” she concludes, “Old friends forgive old clothes, because/Friendship is never out of style! (p. 198).

After describing a host’s gracious “Hospitality,” she concludes:

But did you know these things material
Welcomed me less than those that have no form?
It was your kindness that was beautiful,
It was your spirit’s grace that kept me warm.

You called me friend. You made me one of you.
I was no more a stranger and apart.
You give to hospitality a clue–
Finer than open hands, the open heart (p. 226).

I could empathize with the last stanza of “Fooling Myself”:

I fool myself elaborately,
Some other line of work pursuing.
I seize each task so eagerly–
Except the one I should be doing!

Tarr says that to Rawlings, “Nature is a representation of God’s favor, although God as a concept seldom enters directly into her poems. Instead, she relies upon faith, which she sees as a transcendental force that runs through nature. There is a large element of Thoreau in Rawlings….Nature is divine, or at least a reflection of divinity” (p. 11). I would disagree with that view of nature, believing instead that God created it and it points us to Him (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-23). But I didn’t really see that philosophy reflected in the poems about nature included here. Most of them just show a pleasure in and enjoyment of nature.

A few of her poems would not be politically correct today. In one ode to her cook stove, she calls it her “black slave, humble and low” (p. 123). Some are a little gossipy. In one, she asserts that, just like in poker, “A full house beats a pair” at home, meaning that a home full of noisy children was better than “quiet, childless homes” with their “sedate and stupid choices” (p. 117), odd since she had no children of her own, but made up one for the persona of her columns.Maybe she regretted not having children – or maybe she was just catering to the way she thought her audience would feel. But it seems more than a little insensitive.

Most of her poems, however, bring a smile or a moment of thought or sweet reflection. I can imagine eagerly looking up her column in a newspaper each day. The quiet, kind, serene “mistress of the house” she portrays in many of the poems make me want to be more more like that kind of homemaker. These may not be the highest form of poetry, but for the most part they convey truth, beauty, perspective, understanding, and fun, a worthy goal of any artistic expression.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Wise Woman, Literary Musing MondayCarole‘s Books You Loved)

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Love Through Me, Love of God

Love through me, Love of God;
There is no love in me.
O Fire of love, light Thou the love
That burns perpetually.

Flow through me, Peace of God;
Calm River, flow until
No wind can blow, no current stir
A ripple of self-will.

Shine through me, Joy of God;
Make me like Thy clear air
That Thou dost pour Thy colors through,
As though it were not there

O blessed Love of God,
That all may taste and see
How good Thou art, once more I pray:
Love through me—even me.

~ Amy Carmichael

It’s October!

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October’s Party
by George Cooper

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came.
The Chestnuts, Oaks and Maples,
And leaves of every name.

The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.

The Chestnuts came in yellow,
The Oaks in crimson dressed;
The lovely Misses maple
In scarlet looked their best.

All balanced to their partners,
And gaily fluttered by;
The sight was like a rainbow
New fallen from the sky.

autumn-light

 

October’s the month
When the smallest breeze
Gives us a shower
Of autumn leaves.
Bonfires and pumpkins,
Leaves sailing down –
October is red
And golden and brown.

—Author Unknown

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October leaves are lovely
They rustle when I run
Sometimes I make a heap
And jump in them for fun.

— Author Unknown

(I usually try to give credit for where the pictures I use come from, and I try to limit them to free sites. Most of these have been in my files for a long time and I am not sure where they originated, except that the top one was made with the Word Swag app.)

 

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Across the Will of Nature

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Across the will of Nature
Leads on the path of God;
Not where the flesh delighteth
The feet of Jesus trod.
O bliss to leave behind us
The fetters of the slave,
to leave ourselves behind us,
the graveclothes and the grave.

~ by Gerhard Tersteegen

The first two lines of this poem have been coming to mind often the last few days, so I had to look them up. It’s the first stanza of a poem which Amy Carmichael found inspirational. I had thought it was one of Amy’s, but I probably just first came across it in her biography.

There was a little ditty going around when my kids were teens: “Just two choices on the shelf: pleasing God or pleasing self.” One of my sons just hated that because it made it sound like any personal choice, from liking meatloaf to walks on an autumn day, were directly opposed to God. That’s one problem with reducing doctrine to a catchy phrase.

On the other hand, it is true that we have an old nature that above all else wants its own way, and often that runs contrary to what God wants or what other people want. That’s been my problem this week (well, really, my whole life. Some years ago I did a Bible study on wanting our own way – it was quite eye-opening). There are duties in my life that I really wish I did not have to deal with, but as they are squarely in my path, placed there, I am sure, by God, they’re mine to do. I wrestle with this often, and know there is nothing to do but do them and pray for a better attitude. I wish I could once for all work this out in my thinking and have the “don’t want to” go away forever. But it doesn’t work like that.

I’m sure that’s one reason Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

I’m immeasurably thankful that, though “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way,” God, in His love and patience, did not leave us there. Instead, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…1 Corinthians 13:4-5

See also:

The Captain of My Fate
Wanting Our Own Way

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday)

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Book Review: Beyond Stateliest Marble

I first “discovered” Puritan poetess Anne Bradstreet in a college American Literature class, and loved her work. I focused on her for one of my 31 Days of Inspirational Biography series a couple of years ago. So when I heard there was a good biography of her life, I put it on my Christmas “wish list.”

Beyond Stateliest MarbleI finally got to it this past month: Beyond Stateliest Marble: The Passionate Femininity of Anne Bradstreet by Douglas Wilson. The title comes from a quote by Cotton Mather, leading preacher of the day, saying that Anne’s poetry provided a “monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles.”

In all honesty, I spent the first 3/4 or so of this book being aggravated at it for what it lacked as a biography. It took that long for me to realize it’s not really a biography. Wilson says near the end it’s a tribute to her. It’s part of a “Leaders in Action” series, so it’s presenting that aspect of her. And the great bulk of it is a treatise. So once I realized and acknowledged those things, I was able to relax and take it for what it was.

One of Wilson’s biggest purposes in writing the book (what I called his treatise) is to defend against two erroneous suppositions: that the Puritans were dour, repressed, cheerless, unimaginative, legalistic people as a whole, and, 2) that Anne was anything but a thoroughgoing Puritan. Many modern treatments of Anne will portray her as a closet feminist, or an anomaly, or as having written such bright poetry in spite of her setting and position as a wife and mother rather than her Puritans beliefs, community, and calling as a wife and mother being the springboard from which she wrote. I do believe these misunderstandings at best, or false accusations at worst, do need to be shown as mistaken and wrong, and this book does a very good job of that.

The book is divided into three parts: her life, her character, and her legacy. The chapters are generally thematic rather than linear. We do get some of Anne’s background in the first section: the kind of family she grew up in, the times and setting, her marriage to Simon Bradstreet, their decision to sail from England to America, the voyage, the adjustments for a cultured woman in a non-settled area, her children, and her writing. She had no intentions of publishing her work, but her brother-in-law took copies of her poems and had them published in 1650 in England under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (or, to be exact: The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America, or Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, Wherein especially is Contained a Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year, together with an exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman, Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles. With divers other pleasand and serious Poems, By a Gentlewoman in those parts.)

It was well-received, to say the least, and her poetry has been well-read ever since.

The second section deals with about 30 different character traits (each chapter focusing on one and only about three pages) with Wilson illustrating those traits in Anne’s life either through her poetry or others’ comments about her. And the last section contains four chapters dealing with her legacy.

Though I appreciated what I learned about Anne in this book, overall I felt it contained too much of Wilson and not enough of Anne. I know that “show, don’t tell” is a mantra of fiction rather than non-fiction, but I felt Wilson spent too much space telling his opinions about Anne and what he thought was right and wrong and not enough of showing her through her own writings. I also didn’t like his tone, which I felt was condescending towards those he disagreed with. He faults others for the broad brush strokes with which they portray the Puritans, but then he does the same towards other groups. But most of the reviews I perused on Goodreads voiced high praise for this book, so don’t take my word for what I consider its problems. Maybe our personalities just don’t mesh: in his chapter on humor, I didn’t think anything he brought up as an example of humor was remotely funny (for instance, he says that when Christ brought up to the woman at the well in John 4 that she’d had five husbands and the man she currently had was not her husband, that he was teasing her [p. 163]. I don’t think Jesus would tease people about their sin, and she certainly didn’t seem to take it as a joke.)

However, I do agree with him that Anne is a worthy subject, and that the Puritans were not what people think of them today, and that Anne was content as a wife and mother within a conservative Christian setting and wrote from that setting contentedly, not rebelliously.

One quote of Anne’s that stood out to me was in reference to her children: “Diverse children have their different natures; some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction, some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar…Those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature.”

Though some of her poetry’s subjects include theology and even the Queen, my favorites are the ones dealing with her walk with God, and her home, and family. I’ll close with my favorite two:

By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.

I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow’d his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.

My hungry Soul he fill’d with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.

What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I’ll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity.

___

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Just to Leave in His Dear Hand

I was looking for this poem to share with a friend a few days ago, and I had thought it was on my blog somewhere. I couldn’t find it, so I thought it was high time to add it here. I originally saw the last stanza somewhere, and it wasn’t until looking it up online that I discovered it was part of a longer poem (it might possibly be a hymn, but I’ve never heard it set to music). It’s still the first line of the last stanza that comes to me most often.

I’ve seen this under the titles “How to Trust” and “The Secret of a Happy Day.” I don’t know which was the original, but they both work.

JUST to let Thy Father do what He will;
Just to know that He is true, and be still.
Just to follow, hour by hour, as He leadeth;
Just to draw the moment’s power, as it needeth.
Just to trust Him, this is all. Then the day will surely be
Peaceful, whatso’er befall, bright and blessed, calm and free.

Just to let Him speak to thee, through His Word,
Watching, that His voice may be clearly heard.
Just to tell Him everything, as it rises,
And at once to bring to Him all surprises.
Just to listen, and to stay where you cannot miss His voice,
This is all! and thus today, you, communing, shall rejoice.

Just to trust, and yet to ask guidance still;
Take the training or the task, as He will.
Just to take the loss or gain, as He sends it;
Just to take the joy or pain as He lends it.
He who formed thee for His praise will not miss the gracious aim;
So today, and all thy days, shall be moulded for the same.

Just to leave in His dear hand little things;
All we cannot understand, all the stings.
Just to let Him take the care sorely pressing;
Finding all we let Him bear changed to blessing.
This is all! and yet the way marked by Him who loves thee best:
Secret of a happy day, secret of His promised rest.

– Frances Ridley Havergal

At the Close of the Year

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Excerpts from “At the Close of the Year”

 ~ by John Newton

 Let hearts and tongues unite,
And loud thanksgivings raise:
‘Tis duty, mingled with delight,
To sing the Saviour’s praise.

 In childhood and in youth,
His eye was on us still:
Though strangers to his love and truth,
And prone to cross his will.

 And since his name we knew,
How gracious has he been:
What dangers has he led us through,
What mercies have we seen!

 Now through another year,
Supported by his care,
We raise our Ebenezer here,
“The Lord has help’d thus far.”

 Our lot in future years
We cannot now foresee,
He kindly, to prevent our fears,
Says, “Leave it all to me.”

 Yea, Lord, we wish to cast
Our cares upon thy breast!
Help us to praise thee for the past,
And trust thee for the rest.