Helen Hamilton and May Sinclair on buses

Tim Kendall’s comment on my post about Arnold Bennett’s White Feather story got me looking up the poet Helen Hamilton. The biographical details in both Scars upon my Heart and The Winter of the World are sketchy. She was a schoolteacher, apparently, who enjoyed rock-climbing. I don’t think she was a very good poet, but  she expressed strong opinions in chopped-up prose that has a certain rhetorical force.

Her poem, The Jingo-Woman, though, interested me because it is a bus poem. Buses provided an environment where different classes met in close proximity, and poets could observe their fellow-humans. Some of Susan Miles’s best poems are set on buses. The villainness of The Jingo Woman takes a mean revenge on a young man who offers his seat:

Men there are, and young men too,
Physically not fit to serve,
Who look in their civilian garb
Quite stout and hearty.
And most of whom, I’ll wager,
Have been rejected several times.
How keen, though, your delight,
Keen and malignant,
Should one offer you his seat,
In crowded bus or train,
Thus giving you the chance to say,
In cold, incisive tones of scorn:
‘No I much prefer to stand
As you, young man, are not in khaki !’

I noticed this especially because yesterday, while looking through issues of  Collier’s Magazine for the 1914 Bennett story, I came across a piece by May Sinclair on Women’s Sacrifices for the War (She begins by saying she dislikes the title, which was not of her choosing.) It suggests that the coming of war, which threatened to change  so much, even changed the etiquette of standing on buses:

sinclair-bus

2 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    This is great stuff. The bus poem which I know is T. S. Eliot’s ‘Paysage Triste’, reprinted in Inventions of the March Hare’. It makes your point about class very nicely. The poem begins in Eliot’s most Prufrockish manner: ‘The girl who mounted in the omnibus / The rainy day, and paid a penny fare / Who answered my appreciative stare / With that averted look without surprise / Which only the experienced can wear’, etc. Despite the admiration, which becomes increasingly erotic (‘If I close my eyes I see her moving / With loosened hair about her chamber’), the poem ends by pointing out that she is really not quite the thing. She would have been ‘ill at ease’, not knowing ‘how to sit, or what to wear’, if she had been invited ‘in the box with us’. Buses bring the classes together in intimate relation; thankfully, opera houses keep them apart.

    It’s a wonderful, vicious little poem.

  2. Posted March 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Eliot’s poem is fascinating – but I prefer Hardy’s poem of missed opportunity:

    Faintheart in a Railway Carriage
    By: Thomas Hardy

    At nine in the morning there passed a church,
    At ten there passed me by the sea,
    At twelve a town of smoke and smirch,
    At two a forest of oak and birch,
    And then, on a platform, she:

    A radiant stranger, who saw not me.
    I queried, “Get out to her do I dare?”
    But I kept my seat in my search for a plea,
    And the wheels moved on. O could it but be
    That I had alighted there!


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