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.
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. -martin Links: 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'