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Barmaid -- William Ernest Henley

Once again, posting on Martin's behalf:
(Poem #1054) Barmaid
 Though, if you ask her name, she says Elise,
 Being plain Elizabeth, e'en let it pass,
 And own that, if her aspirates take their ease,
 She ever makes a point, in washing glass,
 Handling the engine, turning taps for tots,
 And countering change, and scorning what men say,
 Of posing as a dove among the pots,
 Nor often gives her dignity away.
 Her head's a work of art, and, if her eyes
 Be tired and ignorant, she has a waist;
 Cheaply the Mode she shadows; and she tries
 From penny novels to amend her taste;
 And, having mopped the zinc for certain years,
 And faced the gas, she fades and disappears.
-- William Ernest Henley
Today's poem belongs to a fairly small, but interesting, genre of poems that
combine aspects of biography, character sketch and synecdoche and explore an
entire class of people by suitable focus on one of its members. Perhaps the
best-known writer of such poems is Edward Arlington Robinson, though there
have been several others (John Betjeman comes to mind).

'Barmaid' is an excellent example of the genre. Note that the barmaid is
wonderfully developed as an individual, Henley achieving an enviable density
of description in fourteen short lines. The opening lines set the tone right
away - "she says 'Elise', being plain Elizabeth", writes Henley, and the
sense of recognition is almost automatic - we know exactly the kind of
person he's talking about.

The progression of the poem is interesting. Having established the barmaid's
working-class background, Henley goes on to build her up as a dignified,
self-contained person, until he undercuts the description with "her eyes be
tired and ignorant". From then on, the portrait is irretrievably pathetic,
and, indeed, the next few lines merely underscore that. And then the final
couplet steps back a pace to suggest that Elise made very little impression
on the world - she "mopped the zinc for certain years" (certainly not a
phrase to suggest any great accomplishment), and then faded and disappeared.
And in doing so, she suddenly becomes as much a symbol as a person - every
barmaid, shop girl or what-have-you who has lived in grey and tired
anonymity and disappeared as silently as she appeared.



  Henley on Minstrels:
    Poem #117, 'The Rain and the Wind' (biography attached)
    Poem #221, 'Invictus'

  Some other character sketches:
    Poem #234, Edwin Arlington Robinson, 'Miniver Cheevy'
    Poem #516, Nissim Ezekiel, 'The Patriot'
    Poem #543, John Betjeman, 'Executive'
    Poem #636, Edwin Arlington Robinson, 'Aaron Stark'
    Poem #798, John Updike, 'V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick'

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