W.H. Auden’s Miss Gee tells the story of the title character: an unfulfilled, unmarried woman stuck in the cliché of 1930s repression. Unfortunately, her circumstances do not get any better as the poem develops, and she ultimately dies of cancer. The poem’s sad subject matter is undermined by it’s lyrical structure and comical style. You can read the full poem here.
Miss Gee Analysis
Under the title are the words “Tune: St James’s Infirmary”, which is a blues-standard poem about the black working class. Therefore, Auden intended the poem to be sung to the tune of this song, which is an interesting contrast to the life of Miss Gee, trapped in the rigour of a middle-class woman’s position.
The poem’s structure is a ballad composed of twenty-five ABCB rhyming quatrains. The rhythm is musical, to the time of 4/4 and the stresses fall on beats rather than syllables, with a rest after each stanza.
First and Second Stanza
Let me tell you a story
The first stanza begins with an introduction typical of the blues. We immediately understand that there is nothing special about Miss Gee’s life; she lives in an anonymous terraced house on a street with many other identical houses. The second stanza describes her physical appearance and shows that everything about her seems unimpressive and unattractive.
Third and Fourth Stanza
In the third and fourth stanzas, Auden provides more details of Miss Gee’s unexciting circumstances. The use of repetition and statements in the past tense imply a sense of boring routine. The lyrical nature of the poem and the detailing of these unimportant parts of her life imply a mocking tone, adding to the poem’s comical feel. The poet also mentions her bicycle with its “harsh back-pedal break”, perhaps alluding to the social position of the eponymous Miss Gee, which does not allow her to run free and is always slowing her down.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
Her prim and proper lifestyle could be linked to her closeness to the Church, both physically and spiritually, which is introduced in the fifth stanza. In the sixth stanza, she looks up to the stars and questions the meaning of her existence and we feel some sympathy for our title character, as she directly expresses her unhappiness with her life.
She dreamed a dream one evening
That she was the Queen of France
And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
Asked Her Majesty to dance.
Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Stanzas
After the expression of her thoughts, we are allowed further into Miss Gee’s brain in the seventh, eighth and ninth stanzas, with the description of one of her dreams. This poem was written in the 1930s when psychoanalysis was popular and Auden had read some works of Sigmund Freud. Therefore, we may infer some deeper meaning from the dream presented here. Miss Gee dreams of a better, more exotic life for herself and the aforementioned Church of Saint Aloysius reappears, but it is the Vicar who features and it becomes clear that she is attracted to him. The palace is destroyed by a storm, which may be foreshadowing her upcoming illness and death. If we look at the dream from a Freudian perspective, we can perceive it is a manifestation of her social and sexual repression as next, Miss Gee dreams she is being followed by a bull with the Vicar’s face. The bull is a typical representation of male sexuality and power and this is underlined by the fact that it is “charging with lowered horn”: a phallic symbol.
The sexual connotations continue in the ninth stanza with the phrase “hot breath”. However, the bull “was going to overtake her” and the reappearance of the bicycle with its back-pedal break causes her to involuntarily slow down. Here we may infer that Miss Gee feels a lack of control within her position in society, as well as sexually repressed with regards to her feelings for the vicar. Nonetheless, we can also regard this dream as a warning of the cancer which will eventually kill her, over which she has no control either.
The tenth stanza marks a progression of time with the mention of summer and winter. We see that despite the passing of seasons, Miss Gee’s life has not changed and she is still trapped in her demure routine, cycling to church with her “clothes buttoned up to her neck” where she will continue to feel trapped with respect to her feelings for the Vicar.
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.
Auden uses repetition in the eleventh stanza, which serves to underline the title character’s loneliness and isolation in a world far-removed from that of the traditional married couple: a highly-respected entity in the time of the poem.
Twelfth and Thirteenth Stanza
In the twelfth and thirteenth stanzas, the poet describes Miss Gee’s time in church and hints again at her sexual repression as she prays to not give into temptation, which we can conclude to be an allusion to the Vicar.
Fourteenth through to Nineteenth Stanza
In the fourteenth stanza the passage of time is again highlighted with the simile “like waves round a Cornish wreck”, giving an image of Miss Gee as the ruins of a ship, battered by the relentless coming and going of days and nights. Auden again uses repetition in the fourteenth and fifteenth stanzas: “She bicycled down to the doctor”, to emphasise the unchanging routine that defines her life. However, at the end of the fifteenth stanza we hear Miss Gee’s voice for the second time and her words mark an unwelcome change in the monotony of her days: ‘O doctor I’ve a pain inside me, / And I don’t feel very well”. The next three stanzas make clear the severity of her illness, which seems to shock even the doctor who examines her. His musings on the nature of her cancer imply that perhaps the cause is rooted in the suppression of some “creative fire”, again alluding to Miss Gee’s sexual and social repression.
Twentieth through to Twenty Fifth Stanza
At the end of the twentieth stanza, the terminal nature of her illness is cemented with the doctor’s words: “she’s a goner, I fear.” The final five stanzas recount the death of our title character, which does not break with the comical tone of the ballad. We find an echo of the earlier simile of the ship, as she lies in the hospital “a total wreck”. In addition, even as she finds herself in her dying bed she is still trapped in the primness of her former life: “with her bedclothes right up to her neck.”
After she passes away, the poem continues, describing her autopsy. There is an element of dramatic irony, as the students examining her laugh at her dead body. The severity and power of her cancer is emphasised in the twenty-third stanza by the surgeon Doctor Rose, and there is some further irony in the fact that such an unimposing woman should have had “a sarcoma / As far advanced as this”.
The final image of Miss Gee presented by the poet is one of shame and disgrace: she is hung from the ceiling to be examined and the very last line focuses on her knee. Ultimately, the life of Miss Gee is boiled down to the dissection of one little body part; drawing a fitting close to the anonymous and unfulfilling life of this individual,
With the poem Miss Gee, Auden seems to be mocking the unglamorous life of a 1930s woman, by turning it into a lyrical ballad. However, the ordinary life of this individual, existing within the limitations of the society into which she was born, is in fact made extraordinary by way of its reproduction in poetry. The words and thoughts of Miss Gee gives us glimpses into her mind and bring to the foreground the fact that all lives – no matter how boring they may seem – are unique, and comprise nuances and events that make them interesting nonetheless.
About W.H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was born in York, England and studied English at Oxford University. He later moved to the United States, becoming an American Citizen in 1946. He spent some time teaching at universities and is best known for his poetry centred around themes of love, politics, psychology and religion. He won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1947. He lived a rather controversial life both for his writing, which was known to be very left-wing, and his sexual relationships with writers Christopher Isherwood and Chester Kallman. His poem Funeral Blues is one of the most famous love poems of the 20th century and Auden was considered to be among the most brilliant minds of his time.