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James Kenneth Stephen

(25 February 1859 – 3 February 1892 / England)

Men and Women


1. IN THE BACKS.

As I was strolling lonely in the Backs,
I met a woman whom I did not like.
I did not like the way the woman walked:
Loose-hipped, big-boned, disjointed, angular.
If her anatomy comprised a waist,
I did not notice it: she had a face
With eyes and lips adjusted thereunto,
But round her mouth no pleasing shadows stirred,
Nor did her eyes invite a second glance.
Her dress was absolutely colourless,
Devoid of taste or shape or character;
Her boots were rather old, and rather large,
And rather shabby, not precisely matched.
Her hair was very far from beautiful
And not abundant: she had such a hat
As neither merits nor expects remark.
She was not clever, I am very sure,
Nor witty nor amusing: well-informed
She may have been, and kind, perhaps, of heart;
But gossip was writ plain upon her face.
And so she stalked her dull unthinking way;
Or, if she thought of anything, it was
That such a one had got a second class,
Or Mrs So-and-So a second child.
I did not want to see that girl again:
I did not like her: and I should not mind
If she were done away with, killed, or ploughed.
She did not seem to serve a useful end:
And certainly she was not beautiful.


2. ON THE KING'S PARADE.

As I was waiting for the tardy tram,
I met what purported to be a man.
What seemed to pass for its material frame,
The semblance of a suit of clothes had on,
Fit emblem of the grand sartorial art
And worthy of a more sublime abode.
Its coat and waistcoat were of weird design
Adapted to the fashion's latest whim.
I think it wore an Athen©¡um tie.
White flannels draped its too ethereal limbs
And in its vacant eye there glared a glass.

In vain for this poor derelict of flesh,
Void of the spirit it was built to house,
Have classic poets tuned their deathless lyre,
Astute historians fingered mouldering sheets
And reared a palace of sententious truth.
In vain has y been added unto x,
In vain the mighty decimal unrolled,
Which strives indefinitely to be ¥g
In vain the palpitating frog has groaned
Beneath the licensed knife: in vain for this
The surreptitious corpse been disinterred
And forced, amid the disinfectant fumes,
To yield its secrets to philosophy.
In vain the stress and storm of politics
Beat round this empty head: in vain the priest
Pronounces loud anathemas: the fool
In vain remarks upon the fact that God
Is missing in the world of his belief.
Vain are the problems whether space, or time,
Or force, or matter can be said to be:
Vain are the mysteries of Melchisedec,
And vain Methuselah's unusual years.

It had a landlady I make no doubt;
A friend or two as vacant as itself;
A kitchen-bill; a thousand cigarettes;
A dog which knew it for the fool it was.
Perhaps it was a member of the Union,
Who votes as often as he does not speak,
And "recommends" as wildly as he spells.
Its income was as much beyond its merits
As less than its inane expenditure.
Its conversation stood to common sense
As stands the Sporting Times (its favourite print)
To wit or humour. It was seldom drunk,
But seldom sober when it went to bed.

The mean contents of these superior clothes
Were they but duly trained by careful hands,
And castigated with remorseless zeal,
Endowed with purpose, gifted with a mind,
And taught to work, or play, or talk, or laugh,
Might possibly aspire--I do not know--
To pass, in time, for what they dare to scorn,
An ordinary undergraduate.

What did this thing crawling 'twixt heaven and earth,
Amid the network of our grimy streets?
What end was it intended to subserve,
What lowly mission fashioned to neglect?
It did not seem to wish for a degree,
And what its object was I do not know,
Unless it was to catch the tardy tram.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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