Afternoon - Poem by Dorothy Parker

This poem illustrates very well Dorothy Parker's poetic talent .  Here,  in fourteen simple lines, she conveys beautifully the serenity that can be achieved in old age.  However, Dorothy Parker was perhaps most famous for her brilliant caustic wit and some critics believe that this strand of her character detracts from her seriousness as a poet.  In this poem we will see how the final two lines turn the poem round to ask who would voluntarily choose such an idealised escape from the trials of life.  Although she paints an idealised picture, it is still a personal poem.  The lady is Dorothy Parker, whose many amorous adventures had ended in disappointment - and at least one had ended in the bitter tears of heartbreak.  
There will be some who maintain that this final twist cynically damages the effect of an admirable poem on old age.  However these final two lines, leave us with a poem that challenges our attitude to the bright and dark moments of our brief human existence.
In writing this blog, I set myself the task of also doing the reverse process of translating the English poems into French.  Here, instead, I have written my lecture expliquée in the second column.  I apologise for distracting from Dorothy Parker’s lines but, at least the greater length of my version measures the evocative quality of her concise detail.

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When I am old, and comforted,

And done with this desire,

With Memory to share my bed

When I am old, and comforted,

And done with this desire,

With Peace to share my fire,(1)

 

 I’ll comb my hair in scalloped(2) bands

Beneath my laundered cap,

And watch my cool and fragile hands

Lie light upon my lap.

 

And I will have a sprigged(3) gown

With lace to kiss my throat;

I’ll draw my curtain to the town,

And hum a purring note.


 

And I’ll forget the way of tears,

And rock, and stir my tea.

But oh, I wish those blessed years(4)

Were further than they be!

 Carla now repeats elements of the poem

And I will have a sprigged(3) gown

With lace to kiss my throat;

I’ll draw my curtain to the town,

And hum a purring note.

 

When I am old, and comforted,

And done with this desire,

With Memory to share my bed

When I am old, and comforted,

And done with this desire,

With Peace to share my Fire

 

With Peace to share my Fire

 


She says that when she is old and has all the comforts she requires, she will have finished with her present amorous desires and instead of lovers in her bed, she will just have calm memories  This mood is matched by the quiet of her daytime life, when peace is her only company, replacing her previous, hectic social life

 



This second verse is a portrayal of her dignity and of orderly life in old age –Her hair primly pulled back in bands, a well-laundered mop cap on her head.  There is no sign of agitation as her hands, frail with the advancing years, lie at rest upon her lap.


 

Her neat lifestyle is reflected as well in her dress with its rustic pattern and its high lace collar.  Her curtains will be drawn to shut out the hurly-burly of the town outside and she will hum a tune of contentment.

 



She will forget the distressing episodes in her past as she rocks gently in her rocking chair and stirs her tea.

This has been a reassuring picture of blissful old age but the last two lines come as a jolt.  In a typical, discordant note of reality, Dorothy Parker expresses dismay that this final state of serenity in old age is approaching too rapidly.







The title of the poem is “afternoon” not “evening”, because it is a poet in her thirties contemplating her final years. 



TRANSLATION NOTES

  1. to share my fire – The scene is in the 1920s and 1930s and, before the age of central heating, the focal point of comfort was the coal or log fire in the living room.  I suppose though there could be a second sense of the fire in the heart.

  2. Scalloped describes the pattern of a dress or as in this case of hair.  A scalloped edge is “une bordure festonnée”

  3. Sprigged is a word that I had never seen before.  The noun “sprig” is well-known – it means a small stem bearing leaves or flowers, taken from a plant e.g. sprig of mistletoe.

  4. those blessed years The literal meaning of “blessed” means having received the blessing of God or of some person.  However it is also used as an expression of annoyance like “sacré” in French e.g “Where have I mislaid that blessed screwdriver”.  (When used as a semi-oath it is always pronounced as two syllables: bless-ed.)  As the tone of the poem has changed in the last two lines, the meaning of “blessed” here is ambiguous and no doubt Dorothy Parker intended it to be.

THE ORIGINAL POEM "AFTERNOON" BY DOROTHY PARKER

Carla Bruni had adapted the poem for her song .  The following is the exact text of Dorothy Parker's poem



When I am old, and comforted,

And done with this desire,

With Memory to share my bed

And Peace to share my fire,(1)


 I’ll comb my hair in scalloped(2) bands

Beneath my laundered cap,

And watch my cool and fragile hands

Lie light upon my lap.

 

And I will have a sprigged(3) gown

With lace to kiss my throat;

I’ll draw my curtain to the town,

And hum a purring note.


 And I’ll forget the way of tears,

And rock, and stir my tea.

But oh, I wish those blessed years(4)

Were further than they be!


FOOTNOTE

Carla Bruni would have had the same sentiments about the onset of old age as those expressed by Dorothy Parker in the last two lines of "Afternoon".  In her poem “Pas une dame”, Carla Bruni states her intention to continue to live life in the turbulent way that she chooses until the very end:



Et quand j'aurai cent ans, et quand j'aurai cent ans

Je vivrai sans programme(9), je vivrai sans programme,

Malgré la mort qui rôde(11), malgré la mort qui rôde,

Je danserai jusqu'à l'aube, je danserai jusqu'à l'aube

Et quand j'aurai cent ans, et quand j'aurai cent ans

Je vivrai de mon charme(12), je vivrai de mon charme.

Dans mon château hanté, dans mon château hanté

On viendra me consulter.

And when I’m a hundred, and when I’m am a hundred

I’ll live without set plan, I’ll live without set plan,

In spite of death lurking, in spite of death lurking,

 

I’ll dance until the dawn, I’ll dance until the dawn

And when I’m a hundred, and when I’m  a hundred

I shall live off my charm, I shall live off my charm.

 

In my haunted castle, in my haunted castle

They will come to me for advice.


How did Dorothy Parker's life actually turn out?   I have put together my own biography of Dorothy Parker, to answer the question the poem raises,  drawing from   material which I collected from the many sources on the Internet.  My study grew so long that I have given it a separate posting on my Carla Bruni website.  To read it and to see the sad contrast of the reality of Dorothy Parker's old age to the peaceful vision of this poem, please click: Dorothy Parker- My Biography

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