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To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train -- Frances Cornford

Moving on with the named verse form theme, here's a triolet...
(Poem #906) To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train
 O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
      Missing so much and so much?
 O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
 Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
 When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
     And shivering sweet to the touch?
 O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
     Missing so much and so much?
-- Frances Cornford
triolet: a poem or stanza of eight lines in which the first line is repeated
  at the fourth and seventh and the second line as the eight with a rhyme
  scheme of ABaAabAB.

  The English pronunciation is tr<e>i;olet, though it is tree-o-lay in

Today's poem is not particularly great, except for one thing - it makes
excellent use of the triolet form. Rather than employ the more modern custom
of attempting to vary the reading of the repeated lines, Cornford structures
the poem so that the repetition reads easily and naturally - it's not
obscured, but it doesn't need to be, since it adds to, rather than
detracts from, the poem.

As for the content of the poem, the "O fat white woman whom nobody loves"
is rather jarring to modern sensibilities; I can't imagine it being
too far otherwise even to her contemporaries. In particular, I find the
'whom nobody loves' a rather odd sort of deduction to make from a train
window, and have to wonder if it was intended as a comment on the narrator
as much as on the woman.

Like 'Trees', like 'The Ballad of the Tempest', today's poem has just that
combination of popular and annoying qualities that make it almost guaranteed
to attract parodies. Chesterton was moved to reply on the woman's behalf:

  Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
  Guessing so much and so much.
  Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
  Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
  And why do you know such a frightful lot
  About people in gloves and such?
    -- Chesterton, 'The Fat White Woman Speaks'
        (c. 1933); an answer to Frances Cornford.

and Housman skewered the poem rather neatly:

  O why do you walk through the fields in boots,
       Missing so much and so much?
  O fat white woman whom nobody shoots,
  Why do you walk through the fields in boots,
  When the grass is soft as the breast of coots
       And shivering-sweet to the touch?

    -- Housman; see [broken link] for the rest
    of the (excellent) piece on Housman's reworking of other poets' poems.

On Triolets:

  Like most of the repeated line verse forms, triolets are influenced rather
  heavily by the constraint. Unlike the villanelle, however, the poem itself
  is short enough that the repetition can be worked with, rather than
  around, a lot more easily (though workarounds are, of course, popular,
  from the shifting of punctuation and parts of speech to the use of
  homophones and homonyms, taking advantage of the fact that the repeated
  lines merely have to *sound* identical).

  Here are some essays on the triolet:

    Going back at least to the thirteenth century, triolets are short,
    usually witty poems, just perfect for tucking into a box of candy or
    some flowers. Its name comes from the repetition of the key line three
    times (French "tri").

      -- [broken link]

    [broken link] is a
    self-referential triolet

    [broken link]
    is another amusingly self-referential piece about the English/French
    pronunciation differences (the triolet is, in general, a fun form to
    play with, and popular among amateur writers of light verse).

    [broken link] is
    another nice essay

    The earliest English triolets were of a devotional nature composed by
    Patrick Carey, a Benedictine monk, in 1651. It was reintroduced by
    Robert Bridges in 1873.


A brief biography of Conford:

Minstrels Links:
  Poem #84: "From a Railway Carriage", R. L. Stevenson
  Poem #212: "To Alice-Sit-By-The-Hour", Franklin Adams


41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

peter westcott said...

Some years ago PUNCH ran a competition on this poem, one of the entries suggested she was a cricketer - wicket keeper.

zoe mair said...

I heard this poem first when I was being trained in elocution at my school in Melbourne probably about 1940. The other poem I remember (or part thereof) was, and I only have a snippit, god bless my soul I thought that man was a telegraph pole when he passed my gate.

Silly isn't it???

Bobby Matherne said...

I came to this page when I looked up "triolet" after discovering it in
"The Man Who Was Thursday" by G. K. Chesterton. Here is the quote in
which it appears:

[page 42] "The work of the philosophical policeman," replied the man in
blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary
detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves;
we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary
detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been
committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be
committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that
drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.
We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool,
and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr. Wilks (a smart young
fellow) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Bobby Matherne

Anonymous said...

One interpretation that I thought was deviant enough to gather attention was that the fat lady was wearing only gloves and therefore was missing much of her clothing. Perverse, isn't it?

Willow said...

I suggest that the fat white woman may have been suffering from sodium retention/fluid retention (as the primary cause of her obesity) and that since one of the results of excessive fluid retention is very painful, swollen hands, she was wearing the gloves to protect her hands from any avoidable friction which would have increased their pain.

mad as a cake said...

o why must you strut thru' the surf in speedos,
exposing so much and so much?
old fat white men whom nobody needos,
why must you strut thru' the surf in speedos?
when boardies would suit the size of your egos
and cover your burgeoning guts.
o why must you strut thru' the surf in speedos,
exposing so much and so much?

Sasha Slater said...

What I find weird about this is that the poem's used in two detective stories I know of - Georgette Heyer's The Unfinished Clue and Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy. In both cases, the woman in gloves is the murderer... in neither case is she fat.

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