New feet within my garden go

Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet
Background Image: Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet

Being ‘wrong’ about a poem has its own rewards and I always keep my notes to remind me of my initial inspiration. For example, at first I thought she might be talking about Eve in the garden, but then “new fingers” made me think of newborns and childbirth and I wondered if she was writing about pregnancy, but I was confused my the bird “upon the Elm”. But it was a cemetery all along.

The first three lines deal with the living going about their business such as walking through the “garden” as they “stir the sod” while the “Troubadour” chirps happily – perhaps hoping for a mate to answer the call – in the “Elm”. Yet the final line reveals that the peace has been broken – she refers to this as a betrayal of “the solitude”. The word “Betrays” gives a strong emotional quality to the poem’s speaker in that we get the sense they are annoyed by all these “new feet” and stirring “fingers”. And formally, this last line resting below the living first three matches the visuals of someone who is laying in their grave (and is annoyed with the living).

The first two lines of the second stanza continue this tension between living and dead as she alternates between “Children” (living youth) with “Weary” (old death), and again with where the “Children” “play upon” as opposed to the dead who “sleep below”. Finally the closing lines of the poem deal with the passage of time and the speaker’s weariness continues with the line “pensive Spring” as if springtime in this particular garden was a gloomy affair when the life above is restless as it walks and stirs and sings – better for it to be winter when the “punctual snow” returns right on time to cover the earth in “solitude”. Her use of the word “still” in both lines reveals not only the speaker who is “weary” of, once more, Spring’s return, but also in how the ‘stillness’ returns when the snows come. In fact, this final line reminds me of Joyce’s “The Dead” when he writes:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

One thing I want to note is that my initial inspiration about this perhaps being a poem about a pregnancy is that in the final two lines a period of about nine months does pass between the start of “pensive Spring” and the return of “punctual snow”. This passage of time coupled with “new feet” and “new children” as well as her use of “punctual” reminds me of the cycle of life not only of the earth but also within each of us. One day we walk in the sunshine as the birds sing in the “Elm” while the next we lay underground and become the energy source which will fuel next year’s growth in the garden. The whole earth is pregnant in this poem, and even in death there is still life that grows from what came before.

I think it’s her use of the word “garden” that could be read slightly cynically as if the speaker is annoyed that their body is now the source of nutrient that the “new fingers stir”, but it could also be read as something rather beautiful in that it recognizes this cycle and our place within it and how even in death there is a memory of all that came before and that the dead want to be remembered.