Les Grands Seigneurs by Dorothy Molloy

Les Grands Seigneurs follows the relationship between men and women, a subject that is still much disputed, and of much interest, today; in the poem, it charts from the very beginning, to the very end of a relationship, culminating in a marriage, and indirectly aping the romantic and courtly poetry of the Middle Ages, which the title itself references. However, Les Grands Seigneurs is no celebration of the romantic, but a sharp and cutting examination of the intrinsically deadly game of interest that men and women play. Giles Foden notes:


If there are echoes here of Carol Ann Duffy and other contemporary mistresses of the demotic lyric, the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan (“I saw Eternity the other night,/Like a great ring of pure and endless light…”) is booming away in the background. This is the essence of Molloy’s gift: to bring the ordinary modern voice into conjunction with the big issues. Her lines have plenty of resonance, but no cant; clearly she has ruthlessly pruned. This is one of the reasons she is so good. Poetry only lives when the “little canif” of seriousness cuts out the dead wood. That seriousness can and probably must have a comic edge, as Molloy’s work does, but it is still very much in earnest.


Any poem Molloy had written would have been a physical experience, in any case. Her very language is rooted in the body, and has a satisfying texture in the mouth. I have been puzzling over her particular approach to the poetic line, and the way it works with its lengths and stops, its enjambments and its caesurae, on her particular syncopation that picks up and drops metre almost foot-by-foot. This metric-line-splitting is a tic one often sees in free verse whose author has, it seems, not bothered to listen, and can’t hear it; it serves as a sloppy remnant of metre, or as an unconscious confirmation that the Formalists are right: we really do think in iambic pentameter. Thus, lines already quoted above can be read like this: “My heart lives in my chest. I know it’s there. / But now the rogue will often disappear, / And leave me stranded in my scarecrow mind.” In Molloy we know it is a considered effect, partly because she is so deliberate a writer (note how the rhymes, which are internal rhymes in the published poem, fall neatly at line-endings in the “metrical” reading), and partly because of its slightly annoying quality (in common with her habit, more pronounced in Hare Soup, of ending poems with a flourish, on a stand-alone last line), lending to drama. However, this aural disjointedness, the effort it takes to keep with her personal rhythm, is responsible for much of the echo left behind by Molloy’s poetry.

It strikes me that Molloy’s poems were conceived almost as little bodies. Like her, the poems have quite noticeable skeletons. Because of this, Molloy can’t “throw out a line” as, say, fishermen do. Her lines stop, start, pick up speed and then have to carry on in the next one down, and are punctuated by a very distinctive use of brisk, flat vowels and clacking consonants. This is her own music, and it is the thing that makes these poems work despite their weaknesses of melodrama, sentimentality, and the sometimes-lazy diction, which leads to sloppy imagery.

– Katy Evans-Bush, CPRW.com.

Dorothy Molloy is a contemporary Irish poet, born to County Mayo, in Ballina. She had several jobs during the course of her life, and it was only completing her postgraduate degree – this one in Medieval Spanish, although previously she had worked as a painter and a journalist – that she began to write poetry, and formed the Thornfield Poets workshop within University College Dublin. She died of liver cancer at the age of 62, shortly before the publication of her first volume of poetry, Hare Soup.

As a poet, Dorothy Molloy leans very hard on the female point of view, and most of her poems are written from a female perspective, labouring the trials that are faced by women during the course of their lives. She uses black humour quite often in her writing, usually to emphasize her point, as can be seen in the poem below, where she writes about her description of men. Quite a few of her poems use foreign languages, which is not surprising considering that Molloy’s studies; she was quite the accomplished linguist at university. This can be noticed in the use of French for the poem’s title – ‘Les Grands Seigneurs’, which translates to ‘The Great Masters’, or ‘The Great Men’, and in some cases, can also translate to ‘The Great Warlords’. However, Molloy’s poems are not for the faint-hearted! Writes Giles Foden, a reviewer for The Guardian:

If sex and blood are everywhere in Hare Soup, so are shiny doohickeys, tiny ministers of light. There are the teeth “grown sharp as knives” with which the poet cuts her own cord in the birth-poem “A Walk in the Forest”; there’s the pair of earrings of polished tin that “flash at the Northern Lights” in “Ice Maiden”; and – carefully placed on the opposite page – the sequins the young narrator of “Family Circus” wears as she tap-dances in her tights in front of Dadda. Better this than what went on before the performance: “I sit mute as he lashes at Mamma./Mamma slumps in her chair. With her eyes/calls her infant performer, her stage-hand, her prop…

Thus, Dorothy Molloy can be seen as the voice of the carnivalesque – the voice of the beautiful and the grotesque, the surreal and the decorated. The poem, Les Grands Seigneurs, can be read in full here.

 

Les Grands Seigneurs Analysis

Stanza 1

Molloy is a Medievalist at heart, and the imagery used in the first stanza further strengthens the reader’s idea of romantic, courtly love; the use of words such as ‘buttresses’ and ‘castellated towers’ imply a certain grandeur of location, of architectural features found only on castles, itself a symbol of courtly and romantic love; the ‘love of distance’, as it can be called, as a popular theme of romantic poetry was the idea of the unattainable woman. Here, it is the woman speaking, talking about the men as though they are nothing more than another feature in her life; a God-given and expected symptom, but nothing untowardly startling in its right. She is used to men fawning over her, she is used to men around her, ‘the best and worst / of times were men’, writes the woman, comparing them to ‘peacocks, and the cockatoos, / the nightengales, the strutting pink flamingos.’ The birds that she uses are colourful and ridiculous, showing in itself that she does not think very highly on these men; they are farcical and posturing, but also beautiful.

It is also unusual in poetry to get such a single-minded approach to the female subject – here, it is all about what the male figures do for her, and not reciprocated. The innate selfishness of the female figure in poetry is not often considered, but Dorothy Molloy gives it a voice in this poem.

 

Stanza 2

The second stanza follows on in a similar idea: men, for the speaker, are nothing more than entertainment – they are ‘my dolphins, my performing seals’, and then the image switches to something metaphorically darker. Men, then, become ‘my sailing-ships, the ballast in my hold’ – the ballast was the part of the ship that kept it stable when it was sailing at less than full capacity. This implies that, on some level, the poet needs men in her life, that for her, the men are a sort of stability even though she derides and mocks them in her poem. The poet’s norm is men wanting her, men being head over heels for her, men ‘performing’ for her – though it is the only positive attribution she gives to men before allocating to them the image that they are mere ‘entertainment’. Even though there is this one compliment, when one reads the two stanzas before, one can almost feel the amusement at the antics of men – it is infamously known that ‘peacocks’, for example, use their colourful feathers to attract a mate, thereby further allocating meaning to the idea of the men as performance, men as entertainment, men as, ultimately, nothing much worth worrying about.

From a poetic point of view, the use of birds is perhaps hinting at courtly poetic techniques itself – it was well-known and common for poets such as Petrarch to write entire sonnets about the beauty of a woman (this is aped in Shakespeare’s ‘My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun’) and so by attributing to men the value of beauty, she is turning the trope of courtly poetry on its head. It is not the lady who is admired for her beauty, but the gallant and symbolic knight. The lady takes centre stage, focuses on the action herself, while the men around her exist as window dressing.

‘A hurdy-gurdy’ is a music box accompanied by a dancing-monkey, thereby symbolizing herself as the controlling element, and the men as the monkey. Men, it is emphasised, are nothing more than mere play-things, a child’s toy to be put away when bored with.

 

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, what is stated subtly throughout the poem is put in plain view: the woman identifies herself as their ‘queen’, and sits ‘enthroned before them, / out of reach’, thereby putting herself a level above the men in her life. She is in control at all times, pointed out in the previous stanzas where she called men her ‘dolphins’ (animals which do tricks for their trainer) and ‘performing seals’ (animals which do the same thing for tricks). ‘I was their queen’ is, again, a subtle throw to Medieval love poetry – it became quite a common trick in the genre to write love poetry to an unattainable woman, usually a lady, or sometimes even the queen. The Knight would love her from afar, knowing that he would never attain his Queen, while the Queen remained either unaware of his affections, or could not respond to them. By placing herself as their queen, the poet is subverting the genre – she is not only aware of their emotions for her, but uses it to strengthen herself. She is not a mere lady, but the ‘queen’, the highest of all unattainable ladies.

The term ‘courtly love’ – ‘we played at courtly love’ – also shows a similar attitude, but it reeks of falsity. They don’t believe in love; they ‘play at’ courtly love, making it more about an act of roleplaying rather than actually believing in love, or in the idea of reciprocating affection. There is no love here, and we are more aware of this by the ending line. The roles are ‘the troubadour’ – the travelling poet that writes verse to music, but ultimately a servant of whoever patron would pay him to write his poetry; ‘the damsel’ – a woman that is normally in distress, which would be a negative role in the poem, however as they are only ‘playing at’ courtly love, it brings to the poem a level of deceit. She is a queen, and yet she is playing at being harmless, well aware that her emotions are out of their reach; and ‘the peach’, which is an image of sexuality (the peach is a ripe, damp fruit, and has been used in other poetry with a similar effect). At this point in the poem, everything about the poetess’ life is fine.

 

Stanza 4

In the final stanza, things change.

‘But after I was wedded, bedded’, she writes, implying a certain servility on her own behalf – the woman is an unwilling participant almost, because the act ‘wedded’ is something that happens to her, rather than something that she consciously chooses. It is almost as though the marriage itself is something forced upon her, like a prison sentence, or confinement. Her once-strong power has been relegated to nothing more, and it happened ‘overnight’, as she has stated. One day, she was strong, and the next she was married, and all her power was diminished; this could be a throw towards the radical feminism of the 1960s.

In the final stanza, it is the woman who is ‘a toy, a plaything, little woman/ wife, a bit of fluff’ – all the derogatory terms that she has called men fade in light of this sentence, where she uses the words ‘wife’ and ‘little woman’ like swears. She is not happy where she is, however she is trapped, and she cannot get out of it. Also, note the idea of possessiveness – not only in the phrase ‘wedded, bedded’, but also in the use of ‘my husband’, lending weight to the man in her life, and thereby putting herself as his belonging. He ‘called her bluff’, and she has thus become his servant.

 

Historical Background

Les Grands Seigneurs formed part of Hare Soup, which was published in 2004, posthumously. Her husband, Andrew Carpenter, the Head of University College Dublin’s School of English and Drama, published two more volumes of her poetry – Gethsemane Day, in 2006, and Long-Distance Swimmer, in 2009.

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