Agatha Christie | Critical Essay by Earl F. Bargainnier

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Agatha Christie.
This section contains 3,126 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Earl F. Bargainnier

Critical Essay by Earl F. Bargainnier

SOURCE: "The Poems of Agatha Christie," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter, 1987, pp. 103-10.

In the following essay, Bargainnier analyzes Christie's collection of poetry, discussing what her poems reveal about her personality.

In her autobiography Agatha Christie wrote, "The creative urge can come out in any form: in embroidery, in cooking of interesting dishes, in painting, drawing and sculpture, in composing music, as well as in writing books and stories. The only difference is that you can be a great deal more grand about some of these things than others." Christie was never "grand" about her detective fiction, and was even less so about her poetry. Yet in 1973, three years before her death, she permitted a small volume of her "collected" poems to be published. Christie's position as the most popular British writer ever deserves some analysis of her poems and their relationship, though slight, to her fiction.

She only gave a page and a half of over five hundred pages of An Autobiography to her poetry, but that small amount indicates both her modesty and pride. Saying that she wrote poetry early, she conceded that "some of my earlier examples are unbelievably awful." She then unfairly to herself quoted one written at the age of eleven:

I know a little cowslip and a pretty flower too, Who wished she was a bluebell and had a robe of blue.

Christie's comment on those lines was "Could anything be more suggestive of a complete lack of literary talent?" (178-79). But she also wrote the following:

By the age of seventeen or eighteen, however, I was doing better. I wrote a series of poems on the Harlequin legend: Harlequin's song, Columbine's, Pierrot, Pierrette, etc. I sent one or two poems to The Poetry Review. I was very pleased when I got a guinea prize. After that, I won several prizes and also had poems printed there. I felt very proud of myself when I was successful. I wrote quite a lot of poems from time to time. A sudden excitement would come over me and I would rush off to write down what I felt gurgling round in my mind. I had no lofty ambitions. An occasional prize in The Poetry Review was all I asked (179).

She then chose to quote in its entirety her poem "Down in the Wood," commenting that it "is not bad; at least it has something of what I wanted to express" (179).

First place in Poems is given to that "series of poems on the Harlequin legend": the ten which make up "A Masque of Italy." This work and twenty-five other poems constitute "Volume I," those originally published as The Road of Dreams in 1924. "Volume II" adds twenty-seven others, apparently written between then and 1960, for the last poem is entitled "Picnic 1960." The only other dates given are in Volume I: "World Hymn 1914" and "Easter 1918." However many poems Christie may have written, for her to have chosen for publication only sixty two from an entire lifetime, shows remarkable restraint, for by 1973 she could have published anything she wanted. Obviously she did not "work" at poetry as she did her detective fiction; poetry was a personal pleasure created by that "sudden excitement" that would come over her.

In form Christie's poems are traditional. There are sonnets and various stanzaic patterns, as well as freely metered works. Except for seven ballads, the poems are brief lyrics, nearly all between twelve and forty lines. She was fond of refrains, alliteration, and incremental repetition, and her favorite type of thyme was the couplet. She was equally adept at both short and long lines, but usually used tetrameter and pentameter. The general tone of the poems is reminiscent of such poets of the 1890s and early twentieth century as Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Alfred Noyes, Walter de la Mare, and James Elroy Flecker—the last of whose "Gates of Damascus" provided the title of her last written novel: Postern of Fate. The ballads resemble those of G. K. Chesterton. With only one or two exceptions, Christie's poems could have been written before 1920. They are Romantic and Georgian in spirit: modernism is absent.

Her subjects are also Romantic. The majority of the poems fall into one of three broad subject areas. First are eighteen concerned with some form of the supernatural: magic, fairies, enchantment or dream worlds. The second group, her love poems, are, with the exception of those addressed to Sir Max Mallowan, her second husband, most often melancholy, and they number nineteen. (There is some overlapping between these two groups, as love is at times treated supernaturally, and the supernatural poems often have a romantic "plot.") Then there are six poems of place, particularly places in the Middle East, which she visited so often on Mallowan's archaeological expeditions. The other nineteen poems vary considerably, but most are reflective or meditative lyrics, ranging from thoughts on such huge topics as "Beauty" to the light "Picnic 1960." That gentle melancholy noted of her love poems, in fact, dominates most of the others as well; it is the single most distinguishing feature of Christie's poetry. On the other hand, a few show the wry humor evident in many of her novels; examples are "In Baghdad" and "To a Beautiful Old Lady." More of such works and less of such overly sentimental ones as "Wild Roses" and such obscurely allegorical ones as "A Palm Tree in the Desert" would be welcome—at least to this reader.

The supernatural poems range from such brief ones as "Enchantment," a variation on "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and another on the Undine legend to "A Masque of Italy" (to be considered later). There are three concerned with the world of dreams: "The Dream Spinners," "The Dream City," and "The Road of Dreams," the last of which provided the title for Christie's 1924 volume of poems. Of the three it most successfully captures the mysterious nature of the subject and has an appropriately "dreamy" tone. A poem that seems to echo the works of Sir James M. Barrie is "From a Grown-up to a Child." It is light verse, but its combination of baby girls and fairies is still too cute for comfort; for example, the last stanza:

     The fairies stay awake all night
     So little girls need take no fright,
     For if the night light does go out
     They know the fairies are about,
     And they can heat their silky wings—
     They are so kind, these darling things!

The two best of this group are "Down in the Wood" and "Dark Sheila." As already noted, Christie chose "Down in the Wood" as her only poem to appear in An Autobiography. It is also a dream poem, presenting a surrealistic world where "Beauty is left in the wood!," but "naked Fear passes out of the wood!" (It needs to be read in its entirety for its eeriness to be appreciated; see Poems, 53, or An Autobiography, 179.) "Dark Sheila" is one of Christie's most successful ballads presenting a brooding narrative of dark Sheila's grief at desertion by one lad who left her for another girl and the unexplained departure of a second lad who "loved you from the very hour he met you." Both now plead with her to let them return, but she does not answer, for she has found "a Shadow Lad"—quite clearly death—with whom to roam. The last stanza gives a partial idea of the Brontesque quality:

     But Sheila, dark Sheila, is out upon the moorland.
     She's out upon the moorland where the heather meets the sky!
     And the lads shall never find her, for there's one walks by her side there,
     A Stranger Lad, a Shadow Lad, who would not be denied there …
     She turned her to his calling
     As the shades of night were falling,
     She turned her to his calling
     As the shades of night were falling.
     She turned her to his calling … and she answered to his Cry.

Poems of love form the largest single group of Christie's poetry, especially if poems within the other two categories which deal with it in some way are also included. Most of these poems fit into four subgroups. Least important are those based upon historical or legendary figures, such as "Count Fersen to the Queen" (Marie Antoinette), "Beatrice Passes," or the wistfully beautiful "Isolt of Brittany." Next are poems of dead or lost love, varying from the sentimental "Wild Roses" through the elegiac "Love Passes"—an excellent Italian sonnet—to the stoic "The Wanderer." Most original of these poems of dead love is the almost conversational "I Wore My New Canary Suit":

      I wore my new canary suit
      To go and meet my love,
      We talked and talked of everything
      In earth and heaven above.
      I went again to meet my love.
      The years had flitted by,
      I wore my old canary suit
      To bid my love goodbye.
      I took it to a jumble sale
      But brought it back once more
      And hung it on an inner peg
      Within my cupboard door.
      I shall not meet my love again
      For he is in his grave.
      So—I've an old moth-eaten suit
      And he is young and brave….

The third type, and related to the second, might be called cries from the heart; they are somewhat surprising outbursts of passion. The two which stand out are "Progression" and "The Lament of the Tortured Lover." The first presents in very short lines, at times only one word, the development and end of a love affair through the progression of the seasons. The emotion may seem uncontrolled to some readers, but that was probably Christie's purpose. "The Lament of the Tortured Lover" is a plea from a lover who cannot express in mere words the depth of his feeling though his loved one demands overt statements. A poem that one hardly expects from the reticent Christie, it ranks among her most effective in paradoxically using words to state that words can never fully express love, as a few lines demonstrate:

     I have said I adore you;
     I have said it—I have said it.
     I am sick of words
     Of everlasting meaningless words.
     I love you—I love you—that parrot cry.
     Cannot flesh take flesh in silence?
     But no—you will not have it so.
     You were made for incense,
     For burning words,
     Words—words—words—going on through the night …
     While I worship the pulse in your throat
     And the curve of your breast….

Four other love poems by their placement together and their content indicate that they were written to Christie's second husband when he was away from her: "To M.E.L.M. in Absence," "Remembrance," "A Choice," and "My Flower Garden." Each indicates her deep love for him and her anxious desire to be with him again. The most personal of her poems, they are testimony to over forty years of happy marriage, the nature of which is shown in lines five to twelve of the English sonnet "To M.E.L.M.":

     Friendship is ours, and still in absence grows.
     No dearer friend I own, so close, so kind.
     Knowledge is yours, from you to me it flows
     And I have loved your wise and gentle mind.
     Beauty we share, a white magnolia tree
     Rooted in England brings you to my side,
     And Roman columns rising from the sea
     Must surely bring remembrance with the tide.

The six poems of place require little comment. "Ctesiphon" is an Italian sonnet on the ancient city, contrasting its "lone-liness of naked beauty" seen on "one enchanted day" to the "Midget Man who wars and dies." "The Nile" is simply an evocation of a visit to Egypt, as "Dartmoor" is of that English region. "In Baghdad," one of Christie's wry commentaries on human existence, uses first an image of melons covered with flies; then comes the barb:

     God sees the world like a round green melon,
     And then he see the flies
     Buzzing and settling …
     But, being merciful,
     He looks away and says,
     'I will try not to think of these human beings …'
     Allah is very merciful.

Nearly as effective is "To a Cedar Tree," in which she juxtaposes the cedar's Lebanese origin with its now being "in my garden by the Thames." Asking it, "Do you remember Lebanon", she writes,

     Gracious you stand
     With smooth clipped lawn all around you
     And an English herbaceous border
     Flaunting its bloom on a summer's day.
     You are part of England now:
     'Tea will be served on the lawn
     Under the Cedar tree.'

When Christie was able to overcome the obvious and the sentimental through pointed humor or ironic reflection as in these last two poems, she could give readers that little shock that is poetry's essence.

Unfortunately that does not happen enough in the other miscellaneous poems. The sentimentality of "The Bells of Brittany" (a child is born, its mother dies) or the obviousness of "World Hymn 1914" ("The God of War is nigh!… Call to the god of Peace.") vitiate whatever actual feeling may be their motivation. Others that fail in similar ways are "Spring," "The Sculptor," and "Heritage," the last an example of the open-road school so popular in the early twentieth century. Differently unsatisfactory is the anti-miscegenation "Racial Musings," which would better have been omitted—however Christie meant it. Just missing falling into that overly sentimental category, but still missing it, is "Hawthorn Trees in Spring: A Lament of Women," apparently written during World War II. Contrasting the blooming trees to both human birth and wartime death, as well as the earthbound role of women as mothers versus the airborne freedom of men, the poem gently laments mankind's transience while affirming the continuity of natural existence. The first three sections read:

      How heavy are the hawthorn trees,
      Weighed down with blossom,
      Laden with heavy perfume,
      Like the bodies and souls of women
      Heavy with fruit of men's desire
      Or with their own desire in Spring.
      Up in the sky, divorced from earth,
      The aeroplanes pass
      Roaring along on their gallent adventures;
      They are the souls of men
      Set free from earth,
      Set free from the load of blossom
      And the cloying perfumes of Spring.
      They fly and are free.
      Yet at the last they must return,
      Fall back to earth,
      Gliding down presently and skimming the ground
      Or falling in vivid flame,
      Yet still returning to earth.

A poem about World War I, "Easter 1918," and another called "A Passing" also avoid the sentimental when it could easily be present, for they concern death. Both express a theme occasionally found in Christie's fiction: that death is not an end. The poems conclude almost identically, the first with "Which some call Death—and others name—Release!" and the second with "We call it—Death!/Nor dare to say—Escape!" Finally, two of the ballads demand mention. "Elizabeth of England" is a monologue in which the queen meditates on her heritage, her battles with Spain, her hatred of Mary Stuart, the glory of her reign, and her childlessness. It concludes: "And I shall share in my Children's fame/Who have never a child of my own …" Though less a psychological study than a survey of major elements of Elizabeth I's long reign, the tone is not rhetorical, but spirited, thus evoking the boisterous age it presents. "The Ballad of the Flint" is a rather bloodthirsty account of a Viking raid on a Celtic tribe, the stealing of the tribe's priestess, her rescue, and the retribution for the sacrilege, ending with the priestess executing the Viking chief, with whom she has fallen in love, and then committing suicide. It is essentially a short story told in forty-five hexameter-heptameter lines, with the unusual stanza rhyming pattern of aabcb, with every fourth line containing internal rhyme ("In confusion there we found them, and we seized and held and bound them").

It would be an exercise in futility to try to find many implicit or explicit relationships between these essentially personal poems and Christie's fiction. That poems such as "Dark Sheila" or "Down in the Woods" deal with mysterious fear, an element often present in detective fiction, is hardly enough evidence on which to draw parallels, nor is the fact that there are poems on Baghdad, the Nile, and Dartmoor and also novels set in those places. "Hymn to Ra" in Volume I shows her early interest in ancient Egypt, but Death Comes as the End (1944), her mystery novel set in that world was first suggested to her by one of her husband's colleagues nearly twenty years later. The poems are filled with her interests, likes, and dislikes, and some of the same are bound also to appear in her fiction; that is all that need be said.

There is one major exception, however, and that is the obvious connection between "A Masque of Italy" and the Harley Quin stories, for both have the same source: her childhood attendance at Christmas pantomimes. The characters of the Italian commedia dell'arte developed into stylized stage characters of English pantomime in the eighteenth century, and by the end of the nineteenth, Harlequin, Columbine, and their cohorts were standard figures of the annual Christmas pantomime: fairly-like creatures not bound by time or space. Thus the pantomime—"A Masque"—Quin link is clear. The immortal Harlequin of "A Masque of Italy" loses Columbine to the mortal Pierrot, but she in turn loses her immortality and dies. Pierrot is last seen as an old man living with an elderly Pierrette and awaiting his own death. The ten songs which recount the story are Christie the poet at her best, and it is not surprising that she won prizes for them. The songs are simple, direct, yet individualized for each character; that typical melancholy is ever-present; and the supernatural is accepted as a given without explanation or apology. Similarly, Harley Quin is a figure of the supernatural. He acts through the mortal Mr. Satterthwaite to help lovers and solve mysteries. In such stories as "Harlequin's Lane" and "The Harlequin Tea Set," Quin is presented as the messenger—if not the personification—of death, but death as a kind of ultimate fulfillment of life. The shadowy, all knowing Quin, who like his stage counterpart can appear or disappear at will, is a deliberately enigmatic figure. He is, without question. Christie's most unusual detective; she wrote in An Autobiography that the Quin stories were her favorites and that she only wrote one when she felt like it, and added that Quin "was a kind of carryover for me from my early poems in the Harlequin and Columbine series" (420). Perhaps the Quin stories were her own favorite detective works because in them she came closer than in any others to writing like a poet.

Poems is the least known of Agatha Christie's some eighty books. Few of the billions of readers of her fiction are even aware of its existence. Yet one can imagine her pleasure on its publication, a pleasure probably greater than that on the appearance of her fiftieth or sixtieth novel, for it is a distillation of her most private thoughts and emotions, as lyric poetry always is for its writer. Christie was a very private person, and this little volume, whatever its faults, provides a new perspective on her personality—one quite different from the public image of "mistress of mystery."

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