FOUR SISTERS: SARGENT’S THE
DAUGHTERS OF EDWARD D. BOIT
Each girl has got her best dress on.
At dawn, they were washed and brushed and tied
Into pinnies. Then the long wait
Until afternoon, when their florid mamma
Peers in for a moment; is off to the coiffeur’s.
The one on the floor wants to know what her doll
Thinks about being painted. The one in the door just wants
To cut her hair short. The one on the side is trying
Her hardest not to fall over. The last one
Dreams herself into colour a limb at a time.
Her eyes look dubious. If the world
Makes us pay for our pleasure, how much will she owe?
Her aberrant shadow trails her like a servant.
Her beruffled wrists know no compulsion.
Her indolent sash is a cascading sigh.
She won’t marry for love, or money.
She’ll found a museum for unmanufacturable inventions.
She can’t let them find out where, or why.
John Singer Sargent ‘The Daughters of Edward D. Boit’ 1882 – detail –
oil on canvas 221 x 221 cm
This poem won the 3rd Prize in the 2011 edition of the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition.
The judges’ Commentary:
Poems about paintings are often disappointing: merely descriptions, or versions of art criticism. When they work, as this one does, they use the painting as a springboard for the poet’s imagination.
Here the poet uses Sargent’s multiple portrait to conjure its contained and comfortable Edwardian world and then moves from surface to interior, from paint to psychology: conjuring the thoughts of the girls, and particularly of a girl who doesn’t belong in that world – who has dreams and ambitions that move beyond it.
I’m often underwhelmed by poems explicitly referring to paintings; all too frequently, they don’t add anything to what the picture itself provides, simply re-describing it. This poem was an exception; for me, it worked quite successfully without any foreknowledge of the painting it refers to, evoking not the artwork itself so much as the constrained Victorian childhood it depicts. I particularly enjoyed the way the poem’s narrative moved beyond both the frame and the time of the painting, suggesting a strong, sceptical character in one of the daughters and hinting tantalisingly at her eccentric, self-directed future.
|John Singer Sargent ‘Carmela Bertagna’ c.1879
oil on canvas 59.7 x 49.5 cm
|John Singer Sargent ‘Garden study of the vickers children’ c. 1884
oil on canvas 137.6 x 91 cm
The author Jane Yeh was born in America and educated at Harvard University. Her first full-length collection, Marabou, was published in 2005 by Carcanet. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Her chapbook, Teen Spies, was published in 2003 by Metre Editions. Her next collection is forthcoming from Carcanet in November 2012.
|John Singer Sargent ‘Carnation Lilylily Rose’ 1885/ 6||John Singer Sargent ‘Carnation Lilylily Rose’ 1885/ 6 detail|
|John Singer Sargent ‘Carnation Lilylily Rose’ 1885/ 6 detail||John Singer Sargent ‘Carnation Lilylily Rose’ 1885/ 6 schetsen|