Celebrating Octavia Hill (1832-1912)

A Visit to the Guild Workshop

I don’t remember how she looked,
Teaching her Ragged School pupils to draw;
Under her guidance, a painted glass table
Was brushed into red and gold light on the floor.

I don’t remember how she looked.
I’d seen the female form before,
In marble and oils.  (Also in bed, where
Women don’t keep faith with art any more.)

I don’t remember how she looked:
The vantage point and not the view,
She made herself a looking-glass.
‘Come in, Mr Ruskin; I’ve something for you.’

Octavia Hill calls at her pupil’s home
I saw the resentment, before anything else.
She had my pupil Jessie’s features, though
Fallen, like an eroded cliff; presenting an unfriendly
Face to tourists.  She clutched a crustacean doll-child
To her skinny chest.  The room, which cried
And whined and rebuked from its dark corners,
Shamed my intrusion, as though my plain but clean
Clothes, my round fourteen-year-old face,
Pink with endeavour, could do nothing
But drop minted tears and turn away.
‘Jessie’s needed here today,’ the woman said.
It was only then I made the girl out, as she knelt
In the soot, coaxing her brother to eat,
Too embarrassed to raise her eyes to greet
The girl who only on Monday
Had praised her painting.  When I left
The anger lit me like a lamp; just an ordinary,
Controlled flame, shielded by milk glass.

Harriot Yorke Looks Back
There is always just one more thing,
Even now. I take down the thanks and requests
Dictated in gasps from your pillow. All day
I field sympathy from statesmen, accept
Calf’s foot jelly from cottagers;
In a solitary moment,
I shut the front door,
Weeping into gelatine.

The evenings are quieter.
I bring in your tray and sit. You say,
‘Do you remember?’ And I do, of course.
The notice: Companion Wanted.
A sweep of grey silk, a folded fan;
Someone to hold gloves and a prayer book?
Instead, it was ink, paper and stamps,
Tracking down MPs and architects,
Unrolling plans, collecting rent, negotiating
The coster’s donkey at the gate.  Listening.

‘Just one more thing, Harriot.’ The shortness of time
Made you despair. The work carried on:
Drafting reports for the Poor Laws Committee,
Rushing out to buy a puzzle for a tenant’s sick boy;
Ordering carriages; arriving late at that inn
Near Berwick; long sodden miles, the driver lost,
The ostler drunk, so I had to stable the horse myself;
Your face so drawn in the lamplight, breathing harsh,
At the foot of stairs of looming steepness.
I half-carried you to the last tiny room in the attic
And we sat laughing on the broken-springed mattress.
Quenching the candle.  Folding the cold lotion in my hands,
To ease the swollen skin of your puckered shins;
Plaiting my hair in the dark as you slept.

You sleep now.  The sweet william shadowed on the sill
Sends my half-dozing, starting, mind to trace
The struggled-for paths at our home in Kent,
Through the green pastures, where you refused
To rest, until all could.  The dreamed-of field
So large you could ‘run in it forever’?

Not long now, the doctor said, refusing my useless shilling.
Just one more thing.

Elaine Ewart, Fenland Poet Laureate

August 2012

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