Anne Stevenson

[This poem refers to the memorial to Jane Austen in Winchester Cathedral.]

Re-Reading Jane

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of these needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley's Were she your equal in situation --
but consider how far this is from being the case
shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners? Hymenal theology!
Six little circles of hell with attendant humours.
For what do we live but to make sport of our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn? The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr. Bennet's century;
The Garden of Eden's still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph's "benevolence of heart"
precedes "the extraordinary endowments of her mind"
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art,
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we'd look to you.
You know the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely, she spoke for you.


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