Tuesday poem: The fat white woman bites back

I spent two hours this morning walking the Suffolk coastal path north from Orford, where we’re staying once again for a few days. It was a lovely walk in glorious weather along a lonely stretch of coast, with the Orford Ness sandspit to my right and Aldeburgh far ahead. The birds mostly flew too high to identify but there were swallows and larks, and lots of wild flowers to admire as well as farm crops ready to harvest.

And there were absolutely no trains at all, not for miles, but suddenly this strange poem by Frances Cornford popped into my head and wouldn’t go away.

To a fat lady seen from the train
by Frances Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

Maybe it was this wheat field that did it? I had just seen someone walking along its edge…

Or maybe it’s the poem’s metre? That triolet form is damnably insistent once it’s got a grip in your head. Either way this poem seems to me such an oddity; a curious mixture of romanticism and mean-spiritedness. But when I got back to the hotel I looked on Google for G. K. Chesterton’s surprising reply, below. (Well, this rejoinder of his still surprises me, anyway; it’s an unexpected note of support for the poem’s subject from such an infamous old misogynist.)

The Fat White Woman Speaks

by G. K. Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,

Guessing so much and so much?

Why do you flash through the flowery meads,

Fat-head poet that nobody reads;

And why do you know such a frightful lot

About people in gloves as such?

And how the devil can you be sure,

Guessing so much and so much,

How do you know but what someone who loves

Always to see me in nice white gloves

At the end of the field you are rushing by,

Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

And then I also remembered Jenny Joseph’s poem, that most famous one called ‘Warning’, and its mention not only of wearing purple and red hats, but also of summer gloves! I love to think that the poor old “fat white woman” is really a defiant Older Woman having a ball and behaving disgracefully. This is the bit I mean:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves…

And now you might like to look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.

14 Responses to “Tuesday poem: The fat white woman bites back”

  1. mary mccallum Says:

    Oh delicious! poets sparring over an image – what a treat Belinda – thank you! Thank you! Made my morning.

  2. alicia ponder Says:

    Love the post :) But long ago when I read the defiant “when I am old I shall wear purple..” I decided – why wait until you’re old – lets start now! Thanks for posting – I don’t know why, but I found it all sweetly romantic, the gloves and the fields…

  3. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mary & Alicia – I’m very glad you enjoyed this.

  4. Frances Thomas Says:

    G.K. Chesterton – who’d have thought it?
    Your post sent me googling – and I found this other response – not so funny, not so clever – from Housman:

    O why do you walk through the fields in boots,
    Missing so much and so much?
    O fat white woman whom nobody shoots,
    Why do you walk through the fields in boots,
    When the grass is soft as the breast of coots
    And shivering-sweet to the touch?

  5. admin Says:

    I agree, incidentally, with you about this, Alicia – behave disgracefully sooner rather than later and wear all the purple you can find. I have so far drawn the line at a red hat but only because the right one hasn’t come my way.

  6. admin Says:

    Yes, `i agree, this is untypically unsatisfying from Housman.

  7. Lucille Says:

    That’s it. I’m wearing summer gloves next time we meet. Diane Keaton always wears gloves have you ever noticed?

  8. admin Says:

    Yes – but what exactly ARE summer gloves? Might they, oh horrors, be made of some inferior material? And what colours might be available? I wouldn’t be happy with off-white, it would remind me of dancing class when I was a teenager. I don’t think we should rush into this.

  9. Helen Lowe Says:

    GK Chesterton wins, I feel … But I love the whole journey here; your walk, the first poetic recollection and then the riposte …

  10. Frances Thomas Says:

    I can hardly believe this now, but I know I used to wear white gloves in the summer when I was a gel……

  11. admin Says:

    I am pretty sure I wore white gloves only in dancing class – or, come to think of it, perhaps it was only the boys who wore them?

  12. admin Says:

    It was a lovely sequence of recollection and research. What would we all do without google?

  13. Maureen Lee Says:

    Just read the first line of Cornford’s poem in Ruth Rendell’s Not in the Flesh and just had to look it up and found you all. I will be smiling the rest of the day, thank you.

  14. admin Says:

    That’s very kind of you Maureen – thanks for telling me!

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