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Miss Gee -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by :
(Poem #1298) Miss Gee
 Let me tell you a little story
   About Miss Edith Gee;
 She lived in Clevedon Terrace
   At number 83.

 She'd a slight squint in her left eye,
   Her lips they were thin and small,
 She had narrow sloping shoulders
   And she had no bust at all.

 She'd a velvet hat with trimmings,
   And a dark grey serge costume;
 She lived in Clevedon Terrace
   In a small bed-sitting room.

 She'd a purple mac for wet days,
   A green umbrella too to take,
 She'd a bicycle with shopping basket
   And a harsh back-pedal break.

 The Church of Saint Aloysius
   Was not so very far;
 She did a lot of knitting,
   Knitting for the Church Bazaar.

 Miss Gee looked up at the starlight
   And said, 'Does anyone care
 That I live on Clevedon Terrace
   On one hundred pounds a year?'

 She dreamed a dream one evening
   That she was the Queen of France
 And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
   Asked Her Majesty to dance.

 But a storm blew down the palace,
   She was biking through a field of corn,
 And a bull with the face of the Vicar
   Was charging with lowered horn.

 She could feel his hot breath behind her,
   He was going to overtake;
 And the bicycle went slower and slower
   Because of that back-pedal break.

 Summer made the trees a picture,
   Winter made them a wreck;
 She bicycled to the evening service
   With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

 She passed by the loving couples,
   She turned her head away;
 She passed by the loving couples,
   And they didn't ask her to stay.

 Miss Gee sat in the side-aisle,
   She heard the organ play;
 And the choir sang so sweetly
   At the ending of the day,

 Miss Gee knelt down in the side-aisle,
   She knelt down on her knees;
 'Lead me not into temptation
   But make me a good girl, please.'

 The days and nights went by her
   Like waves round a Cornish wreck;
 She bicycled down to the doctor
   With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

 She bicycled down to the doctor,
  And rang the surgery bell;
 'O, doctor, I've a pain inside me,
   And I don't feel very well.'

 Doctor Thomas looked her over,
   And then he looked some more;
 Walked over to his wash-basin,
  Said,'Why didn't you come before?'

 Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner,
   Though his wife was waiting to ring,
 Rolling his bread into pellets;
   Said, 'Cancer's a funny thing.

 'Nobody knows what the cause is,
   Though some pretend they do;
 It's like some hidden assassin
   Waiting to strike at you.

 'Childless women get it.
   And men when they retire;
 It's as if there had to be some outlet
   For their foiled creative fire.'

 His wife she rang for the servent,
   Said, 'Dont be so morbid, dear';
 He said: 'I saw Miss Gee this evening
   And she's a goner, I fear.'

 They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
   She lay there a total wreck,
 Lay in the ward for women
   With her bedclothes right up to her neck.

 They lay her on the table,
   The students began to laugh;
 And Mr. Rose the surgeon
   He cut Miss Gee in half.

 Mr. Rose he turned to his students,
   Said, 'Gentlemen if you please,
 We seldom see a sarcoma
   As far advanced as this.'

 They took her off the table,
   They wheeled away Miss Gee
 Down to another department
   Where they study Anatomy.

 They hung her from the ceiling
   Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
 And a couple of Oxford Groupers
   Carefully dissected her knee.
-- W H Auden
At last I've found Miss Gee (again)! I first encountered her cycling
along in her purple mac pursued by the Vicar bull in a college textbook.
In her own quiet way Miss Gee spoke volumes for loneliness, repression,
disease and death. Something about this sad, funny, cruel tale struck me
and I was never able to forget the protagonist.

Now many years later after searching in vain on the internet, I decided
to go and look through the Auden collection at the University. Sure
enough there she was in stack 800 something, hiding with her clothes
buttoned up to her neck!

For me the most important facet of the poem is that it never really lets
you sympathise easily with Miss Gee. Instead of creating dark
sentimental lines to make us feel Miss Gee's misery, Auden turns the
tables and invites us to laugh at her. And it is through the cruel humor
of this deceptively simple poem, through our own guilt, and recognition
that we begin to understand Miss Gee's tragedy...

Some things that caught my attention on reading this poem the second
time were the mention of Saint Aloysius, and the 'Cornish Wreck'. So I
went and did some research:

Saint Aloysius: Born in Castiglione, Spain on the 9th of March in 1568.
Aloysius was also deeply faithful and pious. By the age of 9 he had
privately decided on a religious Life, and made a vow of perpetual
virginity. He practiced many devotions and mortifications, and
safeguarded himself at all times from possible temptation. A kidney
disease confined Saint Aloysius to his bed for some time, removed from
the normal full social life of a young man in his position. Bedrest
would be a difficult challenge for any vigourous young man, but Aloysius
resigned himself to it. Far from being bored, or despairing of his
health, he spent his time in prayer and reading the Lives of the Saints.
His resolve to become a Jesuit was formed and firmed at this time. He
served in a hospital during the plague of 1587 in Milan. In time, he
fell victim to the dreaded disease himself, and died at the age of 23.
This young man, patron to all young people, was beatified in 1621, and
declared a saint in 1725.
        -- )

So it was to this gentle Patron Saint of the young and the sick that
Miss Gee prayed to make her a 'good girl'...

Cornish Wreck: Apparently there are some 3,500 odd wreck sites that have
been accounted for around the dangerous Cornish coastline. Some if not
all of these have become tourist attractions, and thousands of avid
divers dissect the Cornish coast for these wrecks.
        -- [broken link]

Miss Gee is among the thousands of silent lives that have been destroyed
by the ravages of cancer. Of course she happened to be one of the rare
few who lived beyond her life in the anatomy chambers. After a life time
of repression, buttoning-up, and muffled yearnings (for loving couples
and the Vicar) Miss Gee finally had her pick of Oxford Groupers*
hovering around her wreck!

* Grouper: noun, plural 'groupers' also 'grouper'
Etymology: Portuguese 'garoupa'
Any of numerous fishes (family Serranidae and especially genera
Epinephelus and Mycteroperca) that are typically large solitary
bottom-dwelling fishes of warm seas

but also

* a member of the "Oxford Group": This movement, which began around
1908, was originally called "A First Century Christian Fellowship". It
was begun by Frank N. Buchman, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania.
The Oxford Group was focused upon changing the world, 'One Person at a
Time'. At Oxford Group 'House Parties', members 'surrendered' on their
knees and gave testimony (or shared) of their deliverance from their
'sin' of alcoholism, smoking, etc. Around 1940 the Oxford Group changed
its name to Moral Re-Armament. This movement still exists today with
offices worldwide.
        -- [broken link]

83 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Celine said...

It is funny how Auden makes us laugh at her and not really sypathise, like when she lusts after the vicar. But, when find out she has cancer, we are suddenly guilty, for ridiculing her before. Similar to when poeple die, suddenly they become really good people, even if they were not such nice people in life. Those who remember and talk about the dead person's bad side are looked upon with shock and disgust, yet they are obviously the poeple who knew the person best.

Fran Rounds said...

Am I the only person who sees a similarity between Miss Gee and Eleanor

Mehwish Naz said...

Miss Gee has always been my all time favourite apart from poems by
William Blake. The way Auden has protrayed Miss Gee's Character is
truely magnificent; so natural, simply filled with purity but in the end
she's a blistering fool. Whenever read it vividly reflects how the
society disrespected and neglected Miss Gee and many others like her,
and in true nature they were the real cancer!
What i think Auden tried to accomplish through the poem was the idea to
accept others the way they are, as more emphasis was drawn towards the
way she use to keep her self; so very uptight. People judged her from
her outer appearance and weren't interested in her naiive nature.
What i believe is this poem should be mailed to everyone possible so
they can atleast have a touch of reality, as they all exist in their
idealistic frame of mind!

Justi said...

miss Gee clearly shows me that accepting rules introduced by any idiology
( in this case by the christian faith) have to be fatal.
it prevents you from developing your own thinking,your own attitudes and
your own personality.
That means you are dead alive and very vulnerable as no healthy immune
system can develop in an conform means empty body.

Jena said...

Our A levels invite us to explore how Miss Gee is comic. On the first read, I was sure it wasn't comic at all - it seemed more tragic to me. But after re-reading it seems there's a fine line between tears of sadness and tears of joy?

Anonymous said...

erm actually the christian faith has made me more alive, more happy and more myself than ever! dont judge your perseption of god on someone elses opinion. if your guna live your life by it discover your own opinion and dont live off others. thats what kills you.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I take no pleasure in Auden's poem, Miss Gee - neither did the New Zeaand poet Alistair Campbell who wrote a wonderful and fitting reply: Memo to Mr Auden, 28th August, 1966. In no way and for no purpose should anyone write as Auden has,of the social, psychological and physical misfortune of another human being.If this is a humorous way to draw attention to another person'e misery. I want no part of such humour either now or ever.
Alistair Paterson, ONZM

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Anonymous said...

Is interesting how it is we who are satirised, not just miss gee. ie we tend to see dull and unintersting 'thin' people as boring and of little worth. We see her in the same way the oxford groupers do. A neat piece of social satire. Those who think that auden is merely mocking her are not seeing all the truth. And, he is subtle enough to note her own culpability - not acting on her 'dreams'; which is also something we are all guilty of. Is much more than mocking a frail old lady.

Anonymous said...

Surely there is also satire directed at religion and the Church? Miss Gee spends much of her wasted life in churchbut her 'afterlife' is one of stark materialism - the dissecting room, hanging from the ceiling like a 20th century reinvention of terrors of Hell

Anonymous said...

i love this poem. it does not make fun of miss gee but highlights issues surrounding the old and the lonely. one line says it all to me "does anyone care"

Anonymous said...

I don't think auden is having a go at religion- more the way people try to separate themselves from others to be pious - religion is about people and loving and helping others is holiness, which was partly miss gee's failure as she cut herself off from humanity.

Ricko said...

Auden told the story in doggerel. I suspect he saw himself in her. Complex and moving.

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