A Song – Helen Maria Williams
This poem, by Helen Maria Williams, is one that we find in the Love and Relationships section of the OCR anthology. It is easy to view it in terms of a love poem, simple and true, straight forward if you like, but there is always a danger in doing such as that, for the more you know about the poet, the more you begin to realise just why she wrote the thing in the first place. After all, poets do not just sit down and think I know, I will write a love poem today. No, we tend to be inspired by someone or something. Love poets need a muse of some sorts and it can be a person or an experience.
So, when I see the first line of this poem and the words “No riches from his scanty store My lover could impart; He gave a boon I valued more — He gave me all his heart” I am led to question if this is about a person or some form of thing and the “he” is being used to make the link in this way, rather like we do with cars when we say “she” or “her.”
Note though, the alliteration in that first verse. “Scanty” and “store” trip off the tongue almost too romantically as the reader reads and the word “boon,” being quite archaic, leads the reader to understand it back in the context of when written. A boon is either a blessing, a godsend, or a bonus. It is also seen as a help or a privilege, so suddenly we are thinking in terms maybe of a dowry of sorts, a payment from the groom’s family to the bride’s family, to be to take her from her family. This is something that was very much the norm when Williams was alive.
So, was this the romantic interest in her life? Or was it something else entirely? As a love poem, this is one man securing the love of his life, but seen against the context of life in France at the time of the Revolution, of how Williams was a religious rebel of the time, a person who supported the French Revolution and its issues, and a person who lived with a married man in Luxembourg for a time [may have been just platonic so do not take that the wrong way or jump to conclusions], called John Hurford Stone, what we then begin to see is a possible reference to him in this poem, for in real life, Stone paid a 12,000 Franc fee to help a friend’s husband escape from prison in that time. That in itself may be the boon to which this poems refers.
Williams was an extremely political woman in her life so we have to read on to understand further what she is trying to say. So when we then read the words “His soul sincere, his generous worth,” we can now think she is referring to her friend and maybe, the first person in this poem is not her, but that the poem is written from the position of her friend’s friend’s wife [Google Williams to see]. Either way, the boon paid shows the level of friendship that one man has for his the people he knows at the time, if indeed it is not a simple dowry.
That generosity “might well this bosom move” she adds, showing how such generosity can move the heart, a heart that loves the relationship the body is in. But then we see a new direction, a more pointed angle appearing before our eyes, for she writes “and when I asked for bliss on earth,” which if read on its own would make the reader think this was a polemic of some sort, but followed closely by “I only meant his love” then makes the reader all too aware that this is an intensely personal message to the reader about her love for another person.
Verse three states what she wishes from this relationship in that even though she is “in search of gain,” there is only one thing she wishes for amongst all other jewels and that is her love being reciprocated. She states that “love is all I prize,” which may be a question but may as well be read as a statement. The following verse then continues this theme as it allows the reader to see that she only wishes for the simple things in life, “the frugal meal, the lowly cot,” along with “that simple fare, that humble lot,” showing that even if she has only meagre things, so long as she is with the love of her life, then she is happy. This is “more than wealth” in her eyes.
But then, in verse five, we see something of the negative in this relationship. She has already mentioned the lover travelling and now mentions “dangerous ocean” waves and how her tears “vainly flow” in terms of pity, as if she is asking us to pity her in her plight. Now perhaps, this is set or written in the time before Hurford Stone came to her in Luxembourg? If so then the “she” in the poem is in turmoil, for she cannot have the one thing she loves in this life, the love reciprocated by the man she loves. That is an extremely powerful emotion at play in this poem and it is compounded by the last verse where we read, “The night is dark, the waters deep, yet soft the billows roll; Alas! at every breeze I weep — The storm is in my soul.”
The word “storm” is indicative of turmoil in her heart but words like “night, rain, billows” and “roll” are all suggestive of severe weather, almost foreshadowing the truth of their relationship. She has a love that cannot be returned, no matter how hard both of them try. Her love is one that leads to negativity, to unfulfilled passion, to abject frustration and this poem teems with examples of that. Seen as a love poem, it is indeed just that, but it is more like a poem about the abject misery that love for the wrong person can bring. It is, in essence, the same as most other love poems. Think for example, of all the love songs you know. They are all poems of one form or another. How many of them are painful to read? How many are about relationships breaking down? That is why they are so successful. That is why they are good quality, emotive love poems.