‘Les Grands Seigneurs’ by Dorothy Molloy
Men were my buttresses, my castellated towers,
the bowers where I took my rest. The best and worst
of times were men: the peacocks and the cockatoos,
the nightingales, the strutting pink flamingos.
Men were my dolphins, my performing seals; my sailing-ships,
the ballast in my hold. They were the rocking-horses
prancing down the promenade, the bandstand
where the music played. My hurdy-gurdy monkey-men.
I was their queen. I sat enthroned before them,
out of reach. We played at courtly love:
the troubadour, the damsel and the peach.
But after I was wedded, bedded, I became
(yes, overnight) a toy, a plaything, little woman,
wife, a bit of fluff. My husband clicked
his fingers, called my bluff.
Take a run down the end of each line of this and in seconds you can see this is a poem but not one with rhymes throughout. There may be internal rhymes happening [we shall see] but it is a simple collection of thoughts surrounding the relationship between one person and another, in marriage.
Translate the title into English and you get, unless I am wrong, ‘The Big Fellas’ or ‘The Big Men.’ It is clear therefore, to any reader, that where the conflict will be [for there is conflict in every single piece of literature at some point] it will be against men and in favour of the female gender. Will this be a Feminist poem? We shall see.
If this was the case then the first line gives us a clue. We see the words “men were my buttresses,” which is a strange word to use. A buttress is something that is built into an object to strengthen it. Is the lady here saying that the men in her life strengthened her? If so, then forget a Feminist approach to this. Men were her “castellated towers” and “bowers where [she] took [her] rest.” In men, she found comfort and solace, rest and fortitude. But is this enough in any relationship, this sense of safety?
She adds that men were “the best and worst of times” for her. Now this line is interesting because it is a paraphrase of something very famous. Look up the first line to Dickens’ Tale Of Two Cities and see what I mean. What she is saying is that with men she has experienced both the good and the bad. There is no middle ground with them. They “were men” but they were “peacocks” and cockatoos,” things that like to look beautiful whilst at the same time be the centre of attention, preening themselves in the mirror. They were her “strutting pink flamingos,” something fantastic to see and be with. Clearly, her relationships have been both good and bad.
Then she adds that men have been her “dolphins” and her “performing seals.” All these comparisons and metaphors should have your brain thinking “oh boy” as you see what she is using to compare the men in her life to. Dolphins are graceful and playful so this is a positive poem so far. But when we get to the “performing seals” quote, the tide turns a little against men. Does she mean to say that men are like “performing seals?” If she does then she is saying that in her life she can get the man to do anything she wants, showing that she is the one in control in the relationship. Indeed, she may be saying this should be the role of all women; to control their men away from being “performing seals” and into something more likable.
As the poem continues, we see may more metaphors being used, without extension, to show what she really wants. She wants a man who can be the strong and sturdy sailing ship, or the “ballast in [her] hold.” She desires the sort of man who can be like the “rocking-horses prancing down the promenade.” But if she wants this then she is at odds with reality, for such a man does not exist in the world and the female world view here, from such a perspective, is sadly lacking.
Let me explain. What do you consider to be the role of the man? Do you expect a man, a real man, to be strong, tough, determined, reliant on no-one but himself, confident, assured, with a good sense of who he is? Now answer this: does such a thing exist that has all these qualities? The answer is no. A woman’s view of a man is coloured by her experience of men, good or bad. Likewise, a man’s view of a woman is equally skewed. There is no such thing as the perfect man or the perfect woman, even though someone will add “oh yes there is; me!”
Cue Pantomime response there.
So we look at this poem and ones like it through tinted glasses and see someone who fails to see clearly “the bandstand” before her. We see someone who sees what she thinks are “hurdy-gurdy monkey-men” but who is in fact, looking with unfavouring eyes. She is biased to begin with, even though she was “their queen” to begin with. Again, the word “queen” is one used by men to share an expression of fondness towards a woman. A man would see this word and think favourably towards the woman in question. A woman may not, especially an ardent Feminist.
The poet says that she “sat enthroned before them, out of reach” and that “we played at courtly love.” This is a negative comment, from the mind of someone who has been let down, from someone who feels hurt by men. Yes, they treated her like a queen [small q there on purpose] but they were only ‘playing’ at love. They were only actors on a stage that was her life, she the “damsel and the peach” and they the Troubadour. One could argue both for the positive and the negative here especially as she has had more than one relationship with a man before now.
But all this happened to her before one major event in her life, namely her marriage so the poem reflects on how her marriage has changed things. She adds “but after I was wedded [colloquial term meaning married] bedded [internal rhyme there and meaning made love to], I became (yes, overnight) a toy [something to play with], a plaything,” showing the changing attitude of the husband towards his new wife.
Or does it?
Is it the case that this shows only the attitude of the man to the woman, the husband to the wife?
I am married. I by some, am considered the one who you ask something first. I do not like that but that is a societal attitude, not mine. The words “my wife” denote that I am married to this wonderful lady; nothing else in my mind. One thing it definitely does not mean is that I own her, or have control over her, regardless of the vows taken. After all, she did omit the word “obey” in the ceremony, telling me she cannot make a promise before God that she cannot keep. So for me to refer to her as the “little woman,” or the “wife” or my “bit of fluff” would be very, very wrong of me.
Taking that in mind, one sees a poet who does not like when a man does that. So I am in agreement with her. But why is she like this? What makes her think that? The answer lies in experience.
Again, let me explain. I am tall and I am of the larger variety of male. I have had issues with weight all my life, so I am conscious of it and my attitude to it. So when someone uses a word that is derogatory towards obese people, I am likely to respond with 2 words, with 7 letters and 3 of them F. Sometimes, a student has copped for it as well, sadly. Why am I like that? The answer is because I have had that all my life and I hate the person who does this.
So, go back to the poem again and you see the possibility that this woman may not be the typical feminist [small f used on purpose], or even a raving Feminist, but simply someone who is fed up of being treated like a second class citizen by husband or society. If you are male and unsure here consider this. You get a letter as a couple. Someone writes on the envelope “Mr and Mrs G Smith.” George knows it is for him. His wife, Mildred, sees no sign of her on that envelope, apart from the Mrs bit. Does it matter we ask? Well to some it does.
This poet then says “my husband clicked his fingers,” which is suggesting that he is now ordering her about. I know what would happen if I tried that! So this is a complex poem, dealing with tricky and detailed issues. It deals with relationship differences before and after marriage. It explores how a woman can perceive a man acting towards her. It also shows the possibility for both man and woman to totally misunderstand each other, as is so often the case. And at the end we are told that the husband “called [her] bluff” which does suggest or hint at the possibility that he is saying “do it or leave,” but we cannot be certain because our image of the man in the relationship is being painted by an aggrieved woman. On that note, we are careful to see both sides of this relationship.