‘Piazza Piece’ by John Crowe Ransom is a two-stanza poem that uses mismatching structure and elements to bring the reader into a historic world where “an old man” is “trying” to win the affections of “a lady” who does not share his interest. While the general concept of that plot would indicate that there is a vast separation between these two characters—and there is on many levels—Ransom ingeniously builds a subtle setup where the two are shown to be mirror reflections of one another in regard to their wishes and far-reaching goals. Despite their differences, and in contrast to how mismatched they are, the “old man” and the “lady” have a great deal in common. the full poem can be read here.
Piazza Piece Analysis
— I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
In the first part of this eight-line stanza, Ransom introduces the reader to one part of a particular conflict, and that part is a fellow who is clearly aged and interested in this “young[er]” woman. The evidence behind this concept is found in that he is “trying [t]o make [a woman] hear,” but she will not “listen to an old man,” rather preferring the attention of “young men.” The reader can almost feel sorry for this fellow as he pines over a woman who is simply not within his reach.
There are a number of twists at work within ‘Piazza Piece’ that have already begun to develop within these four lines and help to shape the meaning of the poem. For instance, the poem is a Petrarch sonnet, which essentially means there are fourteen lines of iambic pentameter that are divided into an octave and a sestet for two stanzas. Basically, the first stanza is eight lines while the second one is only six.
There is, however, a rhyme scheme that can accompany the meters and stanza sizes within a Petrarch sonnet, and while these rhyme schemes are not set in stone, there are certain schemes that are typically used. For this particular poem, the rhyme scheme varies from the norm to include a “C” pair of lines in the second part of the first stanza, and the second stanza is varied enough to include letters beyond the typical schemes. While this does not remove its status as a Petrarch sonnet, it does express a differentiation from the normal setup, which could be an indication that Ransom is saying the depicted circumstance is out of the norm.
This idea of something out of the norm happening is mimicked with the general pairing of two rhyming lines between two other rhyming lines, like those outer rhymes are housing a secret the reader must search to find. For example, in this first stanza’s first half, the rhyme scheme is ABBA. It is almost as though the “A” lines are hiding the “B” ones, which is a representation of a potential secret Ransom has hidden in ‘Piazza Piece’. The question, then, becomes what that secret is.
Another twist is that the “old man” insists this woman cannot “hear” him because her “ears are soft and small.” This would indicate that she is incapable of “hear[ing]” his voice, but she is able to “hear” “the young men’s whispering and sighing.” If she can “hear” statements so quiet, she likely can hear the “old man” as well, though she might choose to ignore him. From that concept, the reader might begin to feel sympathy toward this fellow because he seems to have affection for this female, but is being ignored.
One other thing within these four lines that is worth attention is that this “old man” is standing in a “dustjacket.” This provides a mismatched idea that is as strong as the varied rhyme scheme of the Petrarch sonnet since the language, title, and style of the poem are all grounded in a more romantic era, but the “dustjacket” feels much more modern. In addition, that “dustjacket” is a piece of clothing that can be connected with mystery and uncertainty since an observer might not know what is hidden under a “jacket” so large.
Furthermore, the “dustjacket” creates a hierarchal separation between the “old man” watching and the “lady” being admired. She is above him and admired while he is lower and in low-class clothing. This could be a secondary reason as to why the “lady” will not “listen” to him as they are apparently in two different stations of life. Once more then, the reader can feel sympathy for this “old[er]” fellow since he is beneath her, and even though the poem is embracing mismatches of time and setting, their pairing is too mismatched for him to win her heart.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.
The mystery of this first stanza continues as the “old man” references “the moon” in connection with this “lady.” Since “the moon” is often treated as a thing of uncertainty, as well as a romantic concept, this is a mismatched pairing that somehow befits the situation. The “old man” is interested in this woman, like the romantic concepts connected to “the moon,” but he is watching from beneath her with a “dustjacket,” which feels mysterious and uncertain. Once more then, the reader is given a new mismatch to explain the situation with the “lady” and “man.”
Beyond this concept, the “old man” seems to be pleading his case as to why the “lady” should consider him and his affections. His rationale, however, is again mismatched to the purpose since he references “the roses on [her] trellis dying.” What this entails is that he is referencing something aged and unstable that is close to her as a representation of how something “old” and lacking “youth” can still be dear to her. This is not something that showcases the typical words of love, which creates a mismatch.
Death is an odd circumstance to address when trying to win someone’s affections, and not only does this reflect a mismatch, but it also begins to reveal how the “old man” is not as “gentleman[ly]” as he has thus far wanted the “lady” to believe. This is a highly significant mismatch since it represents a key twist of ‘Piazza Piece’. Regardless of what this fellow has claimed, he is no “gentleman,” and his actions reveal that quality since he is watching this “lady,” romancing her with words of death, and declaring that he “must have” her. There is a potential threat underlying those words, and given the mystery and unstableness of this observer, the reader cannot be sure at this point what the “old man[‘s]” plans or limits are.
— I am a lady young in beauty waiting
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
The perspective shifts to the “lady” in this second stanza in a phrase that links the reader to a more romantic, historic era – “lady young in beauty waiting.” The general phrasing feels out of time, as does the concept of a “lady in waiting.” The phrase has been expanded to include additional words, but the resemblance is still prevalent enough to provide the connection. That connection, as it happens, creates yet another twist in that a “lady…in…waiting” is not the “lady” of significance at a castle. Rather, she is the one who tends to royalty, which could hint that this “lady” is not nearly as sophisticated as the situation makes her seem. The notion that multiple “young men” are trying to win her affection—as well as the narrator of the first stanza—does not necessarily fit for a simple servant at a castle whose “roses” are “dying” along her “trellis.” Perhaps then, just as the “old man” is not the “gentleman” he claims, this “lady” is not as elevated on the social hierarchy as the previous lines would hint.
Whatever station this “lady” is in life, she is “waiting” for her “truelove”—the combination of those two words into one reveals how significant that concept is to this “lady”—when she spots the “old man” “among the vines.” It is interesting that she has chosen to label this fellow as “grey” since that would indicate a significant lack of color and intrigue. This would be yet another mismatch of elements as it does not quite fit in the level of intrigue or design to the life the “lady” seems to be living, with “roses” on her “trellis” and such.
Once more then, the reader is left with a hierarchal mismatch, but the contrasting quality of labeling this fellow as “grey” runs deeper. As this “old man” has been watching this “lady” from “among the vines,” even speaking of his obsession with her in a manner that could indicate threatening, this “lady” has given him a color that does not showcase alarm or fear—just blandness and boredom. There is nothing logically boring about being stalked or spied on, let alone threatened, so the choice of adjective is another method of showcasing the controversy of the situation and how poorly matched the “old man” is to the “lady.”
It is also interesting to note that the “lady” admits to hearing this “old man,” despite his earlier claims to the contrary, but his “words are dry and faint as in a dream.” This elevates the situation to a surreal level that mirrors the “man[‘s]” romantic concepts of “roses” and “the moon,” but it does so in a distancing way. Whereas the “man” wished to offer logic to include himself in the “lady[‘s]” favor, she is using the surreal prospects of “a dream” and “dry and faint” ideas to push him away from her on some level. Once she has admitted to hearing the “old man,” she only spends one sentence speaking to him, and that sentence is a warning to him to leave her be. After finishing that proclamation, she turns yet again to her state of “waiting,” as if this is the only concept that matters in her life.
There is a paradox at work here since both the “old man” and the “lady” are searching, “waiting,” for something that they cannot have. She has yet to achieve “truelove,” and he has yet to earn her affection. Both, it seems, are willing to overlook facts to embrace their surreal wishes. She will keep “waiting” on her “truelove,” and he will continue to watch her since he “must have” her.
No clear indication is provided in regard to whether or not the “old man” left or if the “lady” is simply ignoring him because he does not fit into her ideal “waiting” scenario. At the core of the situation though, it does not matter. So trapped are they both in their desires that they will continue with their tasks, which is a concept that is reflected in the stanzas’ repeated beginnings and endings. In fact, the only difference between the first and last lines of stanza one, as well as the first and last lines of stanza two, is the addition of a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. What this indicates is that the “old man” is caught in a repetitious loop of “trying,” and the “lady” is similarly trapped in her “waiting.”
Once that concept is set in stone through the stanzas and repetition, the idea can be finished with an ending punctuation mark because the details have already been handed over. No longer at the end of stanza one does it matter that the “old man” is “trying [t]o make [her] hear.” It only matters that the reader understands he is “trying,” thus creating a sensible place to end the sentence. Likewise, it does not matter, by the end of stanza two, that the “lady” is “waiting [u]ntil [her] truelove comes.” It only matters that she is “waiting,” since the loop of searching and reaching for what does not come is the important detail.
In this, the two are perfectly matched, though various elements of their lives would prove otherwise. This juxtaposition of fitting wonderfully and not fitting at all are a well-presented theme to the poem, and the reader is free to assume this juxtaposition will continue with the two of them “trying” and “waiting.”
About John Crowe Ransom
John Crowe Ransom was an American poet who was born in 1888 and lived until 1974, and his works often pair mismatching elements—such as with ‘Piazza Piece.’ This tactic, particularly in connection to the timeframe in which he was writing, has made him a controversial part of the literary world, but his writing has still gained praise over the years. Other poetry of his, such as ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,’ concentrates on exploring the life and death of a young girl. For instance, he won the National Book Award. In addition to his writing, he was also a known critic and educator.