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Short poem

James Kenneth Stephen (1859-1892)

Men and Women

              1As I was strolling lonely in the Backs,
              2I met a woman whom I did not like.
              3I did not like the way the woman walked:
              4Loose-hipped, big-boned, disjointed, angular.
              5If her anatomy comprised a waist,
              6I did not notice it: she had a face
              7With eyes and lips adjusted thereunto,
              8But round her mouth no pleasing shadows stirred,
              9Nor did her eyes invite a second glance.
            10Her dress was absolutely colourless,
            11Devoid of taste or shape or character;
            12Her boots were rather old, and rather large,
            13And rather shabby, not precisely matched.
            14Her hair was very far from beautiful
            15And not abundant: she had such a hat
            16As neither merits nor expects remark.
            17She was not clever, I am very sure,
            18Nor witty nor amusing: well-informed
            19She may have been, and kind, perhaps, of heart;
            20But gossip was writ plain upon her face.
            21And so she stalked her dull unthinking way;
            22Or, if she thought of anything, it was
            23That such a one had got a second class,
            24Or Mrs So-and-So a second child.
            25I did not want to see that girl again:
            26I did not like her: and I should not mind
            27If she were done away with, killed, or ploughed.
            28She did not seem to serve a useful end:
            29And certainly she was not beautiful.

              1As I was waiting for the tardy tram,
              2I met what purported to be a man.
              3What seemed to pass for its material frame,
              4The semblance of a suit of clothes had on,
              5Fit emblem of the grand sartorial art
              6And worthy of a more sublime abode.
              7Its coat and waistcoat were of weird design
              8Adapted to the fashion's latest whim.
              9I think it wore an Athenæum tie.
            10White flannels draped its too ethereal limbs
            11And in its vacant eye there glared a glass.

            12  In vain for this poor derelict of flesh,
            13Void of the spirit it was built to house,
            14Have classic poets tuned their deathless lyre,
            15Astute historians fingered mouldering sheets
            16And reared a palace of sententious truth.
            17In vain has y been added unto x,
            18In vain the mighty decimal unrolled,
            19Which strives indefinitely to be π
            20In vain the palpitating frog has groaned
            21Beneath the licensed knife: in vain for this
            22The surreptitious corpse been disinterred
            23And forced, amid the disinfectant fumes,
            24To yield its secrets to philosophy.
            25In vain the stress and storm of politics
            26Beat round this empty head: in vain the priest
            27Pronounces loud anathemas: the fool
            28In vain remarks upon the fact that God
            29Is missing in the world of his belief.
            30Vain are the problems whether space, or time,
            31Or force, or matter can be said to be:
            32Vain are the mysteries of Melchisedec,
            33And vain Methuselah's unusual years.

            34  It had a landlady I make no doubt;
            35A friend or two as vacant as itself;
            36A kitchen-bill; a thousand cigarettes;
            37A dog which knew it for the fool it was.
            38Perhaps it was a member of the Union,
            39Who votes as often as he does not speak,
            40And "recommends" as wildly as he spells.
            41Its income was as much beyond its merits
            42As less than its inane expenditure.
            43Its conversation stood to common sense
            44As stands the Sporting Times (its favourite print)
            45To wit or humour. It was seldom drunk,
            46But seldom sober when it went to bed.

            47  The mean contents of these superior clothes
            48Were they but duly trained by careful hands,
            49And castigated with remorseless zeal,
            50Endowed with purpose, gifted with a mind,
            51And taught to work, or play, or talk,  or laugh,
            52Might possibly aspire--I do not know--
            53To pass, in time, for what they dare to scorn,
            54An ordinary undergraduate.

            55  What did this thing crawling 'twixt heaven and earth,
            56Amid the network of our grimy streets?
            57What end was it intended to subserve,
            58What lowly mission fashioned to neglect?
            59It did not seem to wish for a degree,
            60And what its object was I do not know,
            61Unless it was to catch the tardy tram.


1.1] Title: an allusion to Robert Browning's book of verse portraits of the same name (1855).
The Backs were gardens and meadows on the Cam River in Cambridge, England.

1.23] a second class: degree of lesser merit (cf. the standard fare on British trains).

2.1] the King's Parade: the main street in Cambridge.
tram: street-car.

2.9] Athenĉum: a popular name for men's clubs.

2.27] anathemas: curses.

2.32] Melchisedec: the priest of Jerusalem who served Abraham.

2.33] Methuselah: ancient Biblical man who lived 969 years.

2.38] the Union: the Cambridge student collective.

2.44] Sporting Times: popular British newspaper.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: J. K. Stephen, Lapsus Calami, new edn. (Cambridge: Macmillan and Bowes, 1891), pp. 63-67. PR 5473 S4L3 1891 Robarts Library.
First publication date: June 1891
Publication date note: Granta June 1891
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1997.
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/6

Form: blank verse

Other poems by James Kenneth Stephen