An Apology

My thoughts this morning echo the words of a poem by Lula Greene Richards (1849-1944). Lula was the editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a staunch defender of women’s right to vote, to obtain an equal education, and to choose their own occupations. This poem comes from Branches That Run Over the Wall.

An Apology

Did I stay too long in the school room
After the lessons were through,
Leaving my mother and sisters
With all the work to do?
And has it vexed you, mother,
My mother, so patient and true?

Forgive me, my mothers and sisters,
Smile kindly and gently speak:
I’ll try to do better tomorrow
And all the rest of the week,
If my wayward mind and feelings
Do not play me another freak.

The children were hard to manage
Heedless and dull today;
It seemed they could think of nothing
Except their love for play,
Out doors the birds and flowers
And sunshine were all so gay.

And after the lessons were ended
They sought of youth’s charms the chief,
While to rest in the quiet school room
Was to me a blessed relief
And the time slipped by unnoticed,
The moments appeared so brief

And I have been writing something
Which will likely enough be read
By our children’s children
After we are all dead;
And must I think I should have been
Washing dishes instead?

26 comments for “An Apology

  1. I freely admit that I am really dense about reading poetry, so I no doubt am missing the inner meaning of this particular offering, but I do have a question/objection.

    It seems to me that the poem is implicitly saying, hey, quit bugging me about the dishes, I am writing something for the ages here. Now perhaps in the context of the cult of domesticity and the restricted options of women, etc. etc., we ought to cheer the sentiments and march to the barricades. On the other hand…

    Imagine that the speaker was male, rather than female, and he informed his wife, sister, mother, etc. that he wasn’t doing the dishes because he was engaged in higher things.

    If I did that, my wife would kick my butt.

  2. I like how she is willing to admit she’s a bit of a freak : ) at the same time that she (not entirely consistently? but I think consistency is hard to achieve on this question) claims to have been doing something higher.

  3. I wonder, though, if it’s a good idea to embrace bad art for the sake of the Cause. Like the LDS tendency to hang anything on the wall having to do with the Church, no matter how badly expressed. The Church is good, so a painting of Joseph Smith on a heavenly swing set getting a push from Jesus while a misty-eyed Moroni (perhaps accompanied by one or two of the Founding Fathers) looks on approvingly is good. I suppose this line of reasoning isn’t limited to the Saints (on my mission I saw, in a Christian bookstore, a picture of Jesus riding a unicorn), but anyhow I can’t shake the feeling that (aesthetically) cheap art cheapens whatever it’s portraying. Anyhow this sort of Hallmark poetry can be reproduced ad nauseam: here’s my own contribution to the Cause:

    & I thought, O dear dear mother
    My mother so gentle & sweet
    If only you’d written some poems of your own
    That would’ve been really neat
    But the menfolk kept you busy
    With cries for more red meat

    So now it’s just me & Shakespeare
    All alone in a room of one’s own
    Damning those damnable dishes
    & gnawing the poetry bone

  4. Ben,

    She is not the freak, it is her mind and feelings that play her so. And, judging from the conclusion, she perhaps considers it only to be freakish in the eyes of her sisters and mothers.

    My thoughts echo Nate’s. This poem could be, with subtle alteration, applied to the men of the era just as well. This makes the poem more interesting because it is more universally applicable. But when applied to men, its hubris shines through more clearly.

  5. “so a painting of Joseph Smith on a heavenly swing set getting a push from Jesus while a misty-eyed Moroni (perhaps accompanied by one or two of the Founding Fathers) looks on approvingly”

    I would pay good money for this. It would be fun to see people’s reactions.

  6. I didn’t say this was art. I merely called it a poem.

    Nevertheless, I still like Lula’s “Apology” because I find some ambiguity in her tone. Frank suggested that a more appropriate title for this poem would be “Apologia,” or defense. Indeed, Lula may simply be defending her decision to write instead of washing the dishes. However, there may also be a level of real regret for leaving her other responsibilities undone. After all she calls herself a freak and faults the other children (presumably her sisters) for nothing but their love of the flowers and sunshine outside–hardly a harsh indictment. I think it is also possible that Lula is making fun of herself.

    Nate—you’re right that putting this poem in the voice of a man drastically changes the tone. I think, however, that doing so is somewhat unfair. Lula is commenting on the expectations and strictures placed on her as a (19th century) woman. Notice that she makes no apology to her father or brothers for not doing the dishes.

  7. Julie: Being sorely in need of good money, I wish I could paint. However, if you’re interested, I recently saw an LDS painting which features the Founding Fathers clustered around the freshly-signed Constitution, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, gripping each other’s shoulders in a brotherly way, & meanwhile B. Franklin is breaking the fourth wall by staring right at you with a big fat tear oozing down his cheek. The artist was so intent on that tear being visible (look! he’s crying! Just think of how meaningful it was) that he gave it a milky quality that has, unfortunately, the appearance of snot. I think Deseret Book sells it for the low low price of 200 bucks.

  8. It appears to me that she is a schoolteacher. The children in the poem are then the one’s she is teaching in the schoolhouse, not sisters. She notes their difficult behavior but excuses it because of their nature and desire to play. I presume this is because she feels she should similarly be excused for engaging in her own amusement.

    This highligts an important point– is what she did justified as consumption or production? She starts with a defense that she is playing in her way as the children play in theirs. But if she is a grown woman, this is not a very strong excuse. She is expected to spend her day working, just like all abel bodied adults. So she then defends her actions as an alternative kind of work; thus she is justified because she is producing.

    Similarly, rewrite the poem as a man that doesn’t help his brothers dig posts for the new fence. His justification is that he loves to write as children love to play. This is not compelling. He could then attempt to justify his absence because he was producing a great work that will be cherished by generation unborn.

    If he’s sufficiently gifted and the alternative work is of low priority, then perhaps this is reasonable. But most writing that no one is willing to pay for or read at the time of writing will not gain value later. Dust it is, and unto dust it shall (rightly) return.

    If this is the case, then our poet or hypothetical man can only justify their actions as a form of consumption or personal entertainment, in which case they should do it while others rest and take their own relaxation, not while others do their share of the work.

  9. I would be inclined to read this as a type of Mormon women’s infighting over “feminist” issues–the mommy wars, the insane housekeeping competitions, etc. I’d guess that those have been pretty constant since first-wave feminism. Alas.

  10. Also, biography is a little helpful in reading this poem. Louisa Greene and her family moved several times during her childhood; Brigham Young kept calling her father to settle new towns, and she ended up teaching school long before she was finished with her own schooling, and always felt pretty desperate about the state of her own education. One of the things I hugely admire about her (my daughter is named for her) is that she just went ahead and *did* things like teaching school, founding a newspaper (!), etc., despite her tremendous insecurity about her intellectual capability and training. If the poem is autobiographical, it’s likely that she would have stayed in the schoolroom hoping to catch up, rather than out of some arrogance.

  11. Kristine,

    The poet may not have been arrogrant. Many of us feel emotions occasionally that do not justly characterize our lives. Many of us write things that are misinterpreted. Either of these may have happened here. But the poem she has written comes across as arrogant.

  12. Frank, there’s a long tradition of referencing the hope of gaining immortality through one’s words in poetry–are you really going to call all those poets “arrogant” because they believe/hope that what they’re doing will have some enduring value? And does one really have to be *that* arrogant to suppose that something one is doing is more important than washing dishes? It’s certainly possible to read the poem as arrogant, but it’s a pretty mean-spirited reading, if you ask me. Tired schoolmarm looking to loftier realms than her daily grind seems more like it to me. (And let’s hope she had been writing something besides this little ditty to assure her immortality :) )

  13. I don’t need to disparage any great traditions to note the fact that most poems are not remembered or held in high esteem by anyone.

    Thus the “long tradition” of immortality through words is harshly contradicted by the reality that the vast majority of words are not “likely enough” to be immortal. Surely Louisa knew this. Thus her poem comes across like the high school jock who’s going to play for the NFL and the girl who’s going to be a supermodel. You may call it arrogance or ignorance. Either will do. I think your parenthetical remark beautifully sums up the problem.

    You call this mean-spirited. I call it an obvious reading. If it’s obvious, can it be peculiarly mean-spirited? If so, I am guilty.

    There is a caveat to all this. Perhaps she is not talking of a piece of artistry but rather a family history. This would be a much more charitable reading as family and personal histories really do get read. Maybe she was being literal when she speaks of our children’s children. They would be interested in grandmother’s writing. But I assumed she was asserting grander things—that after she died people would be interested in what she did because of its own artistry, not its genealogical value.

  14. Frank, there are all kinds of things she could have been writing–a fiery pro-suffrage editorial, a recipe book, a journal, a love letter, a lesson plan, a hymn–words last longer than clean dishes. I think it can be as simple as that.

  15. Kristine,

    I was going to argue some more about your reading but, since your daughter is already named, I consider you pre-committed. So what is to be gained? Attacking people’s hero’s lesser poems is not an occupation for the valiant.

  16. So let’s concentrate on Sister Richards’ major poems, which, I understand, remarkably follow the trajectory of Yeats’s.

  17. Frank, argue away, if you want to. It’s not her poetry that makes me admire her–much of her poetry is, in fact, awful. I’m not defending the poem qua poem (unlike Melissa, I’m perfectly willing to consign it to a category called bad art, even Really Bad Art!), only trying to see the more interesting possibilities for reading it.

    (Also wondering, still, Melissa, what it is that made you want to “echo” it today–say more, please!)

  18. Actually, Kristine, you’re not the chattiest one around here. The chart that knows all (except when it breaks) shows that you’re about the sixth-chattiest, behind Clark, Nate, Lyle, Adam and me. (It doesn’t look like it’s counting in your other e-mail address correctly, though, so I think you should actually be at #5).

  19. This thread has been passed up, but I don’t mind talking to the wind if neccesary.

    Kristen’s defense is as simple as “words last longer than clean dishes.” Certainly they do, because clean dishes immediately get used again. This usefulness is one of their more endearing features. If the dishes were not used, they would stay clean for a very long time. Similarly, words may be around for a very long time. This was not Louisa’s claim. Her claim was that her words would be read by our children’s children. SHe is claiming that they will be used. This excused her from her familial duties. But her mother did not excuse her. She excused herself and let others do her work. The hubris is to claim that what she did was important enough that she should be able to free-ride on other’s clean dishes.

    This is exactly what Nate alluded to, “sorry honey, you’ll need to do the dishes tonight because I’m writing an epic poem.” That is fine if “honey” wishes to support said epic poem. It is also fine, even admirable, to write an epic poem in one’s own free time. This poem has her writing on someone else’s free time, since they must do her work. To belive her work was that important is arrogant or ignorant. In some cases, the epic poem really will be of great enough worth to validate this behavior. Typically it is not.

  20. One of the many perils of subjecting bad poetry to close analysis is exactly the sort of hubris that Frank has been pointing out. A while back the Onion “critiqued” the I’m so depressed-type poetry of teenagers for philosophical and poetic content with the same result.

  21. I can see how a very ironic question could be posed at this point, i.e. whose hubris are you talking about? Yours or Lula’s?

  22. Interesting post. I wouldn’t have imagined it was hubris to say you don’t like doing dishes. I’m always glad to get someone else to do them for me. As a child, my strategy was to practice the piano at the moment my mom started cleaning up the table. As an adult, my strategies have gotten much more elaborate. Maybe we need confession. That way I could atone. . . . .

  23. It’s only hubris when someone else doesn’t want to do the dishes :)

    Your example is perfect though, you got out of doing the dishes by doing something you thought (or your parents thought) was more important than doing dishes—piano practice.

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