The Cruelest Song I’ve Never Heard

When I was in grade seven, my English class undertook a formidable Poetry Unit. Our anthology for this particular unit was filled with what I now understand were very good poems, by William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, and the like.

It also, inexplicably, contained the lyrics to this folksong, which is the cruelest song I’ve ever come across:

Housewife’s Lament

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining
And saw an old woman the picture of gloom
She gazed at the mud on her doorstep (’twas raining)
And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble
Beauty will fade and riches will flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

There’s too much of worriment goes to a bonnet
There’s too much of ironing goes to a shirt
There’s nothing that pays for the time you waste on it
There’s nothing that lasts us but trouble and dirt.

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble
Beauty will fade and riches will flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

In March it is mud, it is slush in December
The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust
In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September
The wallpaper rots and the candlesticks rust

There are worms on the cherries and slugs on the roses
And ants in the sugar and mice in the pies
The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes
And ravaging roaches and damaging flies

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble
Beauty will fade and riches will flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

Last night in my dreams I was stationed forever
On a far little rock in the midst of the sea
My one chance of life was a ceaseless endeavor
To sweep off the waves as they swept over me

Alas! ‘Twas no dream; ahead I behold it
I see I am helpless my fate to avert
She lay down her broom, her apron she folded
She lay down and died and was buried in dirt.

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble
Beauty will fade and riches will flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be

It’s a pretty gloomy song without reading much into it, and you could take it at face value as a “Housewife’s Lament” (i.e. a complaint about the futility of housework) and no more, but for me the clincher, the part that makes this poem/song SO DAMN CRUEL, is this verse:

Last night in my dreams I was stationed forever
On a far little rock in the midst of the sea
My one chance of life was a ceaseless endeavor
To sweep off the waves as they swept over me

This part is cruel because its truth is inescapable. All of us, from the moment we are born, are stationed on a little rock , a tiny island of life surrounded by the ocean that is our non-existence, stretching out endlessly before and after us. The only way to stay alive is to struggle, without stopping, against death. The only escape from this struggle is death. Cheery stuff, huh?

In his essay “KING LEAR or ENDGAME” (in his fabulous book Shakespeare our Contemporary), Jan Kott differentiates tragic drama from that which is simply grotesque. In tragic drama, we find “the necessity of making a choice between opposing values”. Kott uses the example of the Greek heroine Antigone, who must choose between her uncle and her brother’s memory, between obeying the king’s law but breaking divine law, or obeying divine law but bringing about her own death. Unfair, cruel even, but morally compelling and in some ways, redeeming.

In grotesque drama, “both alternatives of the choice imposed are absurd, irrelevant, or compromising. The hero has to play, even if there is no game. Every move is bad, but he cannot throw down his cards. To throw down his cards would also be a bad move.” (135).

Like the hero in a grotesque play, the lamenting housewife in the folksong is trapped in an absurd game. Her options are to spend a hateful life in hateful avoidance of hateful dirt and hateful decay, or to die, submitting to the dirt and decay she hates and fears. There is no redemption in either her struggle or her death. There is no “winning”.
It reminds me of playing tag as a kid. My fear of being caught was always so great that spending time NOT being caught was a torture. My only escape from this fear was to allow the thing I was afraid of, to allow myself to be caught. Despite being a decently fast runner, no matter what I did, I lost.

At least I had the choice not to play this particular game. I could play on the swings if I wanted to, or read a book. We, these little souls stationed on the rock that is our living bodies, do not have this choice. We must eat and sleep and clothe and shelter ourselves to stave off death. We must search for love and meaning because death makes our existence too painful without it. And at some point we must die anyways. Yes, we technically do have the choice to stop playing this losing game, but the only way to stop playing is to lose. Are you miserable yet?

Kott writes of Gloucester’s attempted suicide in King Lear:

Gloucester’s suicide has a meaning only if the gods exist. It is a protest against undeserved suffering and the world’s injustice… Even if the gods are cruel, they must take this suicide into consideration. It will count in the final reckoning between gods and man. Its sole value lies in its reference to the absolute.

But if the gods, and their moral order in the world, do not exist, Gloucester’s suicide does not solve or alter anything. It is only a somersault on an empty stage. (149)

[…] If there are no gods, suicide makes no sense. Death exists in any case. (151)

Unlike the character of Gloucester, the housewife in the folksong really does die, but as with the characters in King Lear, there is no redemption for her, and no dignity. She dies defeated, an old woman in the dirt, ridiculous. In death she ends her struggle but also makes pointless her every effort prior to dying. She cannot win. If she was a teenager, she would probably cry, “I wish I’d never been born!”

(The playwright Samuel Beckett understood this grotesque concept in cold, terrible clarity. Plays like Act Without Words and Waiting for Godot are enough to make you want to bang your head against a wall. Forever. Which is why I read those plays once and never read them again.)

Of course, if there IS a divine presence in the universe, then there truly is an audience for the housewife’s lament, and there may be some meaning for her when her life’s deeds are totted up. But that, as even the quite religious must occasionally feel in their darkest moments, is sometimes a very big if. And it is one of the reasons that I could never be atheist. The spectre of existence with no meaning for my eventual non-existence is too horrifying for me to cope with. So I believe what I like to believe. I believe what feels right and comforting to me. And I hope that it is a pattern that will allow for whatever events will occur in my life. And I hope that nothing bad will happen that will test this pattern. And I hope and hope every day.

And I am on my rock. And I am sweeping at the waves with all my might. And I have no idea, no REAL way of knowing, what is in that ocean of non-existence that surrounds me. And that is frightening and paralyzing and is enough to make a person crazy.

But you know what? Sometimes I don’t mind. Sometimes, most of the time generally, the work is a gift. The load is lightened by the songs in my heart, and the people who are holding my hands. I forget what I am doing. I forget to see the struggle as a procrastination of death and instead as a miracle, some kind of accident maybe, a spark in the darkness that is small and weak, but holds down its tiny island of light for as long as it can just the same. The world is full of people (children, for example) who don’t resent the ocean because they don’t perceive it as a threat. They are too busy exploring their rock, however big or small it is. Those same things that stave off death and fear (food, shelter, love, art) are also immensely pleasurable, comforting, and meaningful in themselves.

And you know something else? I like sweeping. I always have. And someday (hopefully a looooong way off) when I finally throw down my broom, or have it dashed from my hands by a fateful wave, I won’t need any truth but the ones I carry with me: I am fortunate. There’s been so much love. This is a gift. Thanks so much.

marc_chagall-painting

Here’s some beautiful Chagall so you don’t get too sad.

P.S. To any friends or family members who may be concerned by my choice of topic this week, I am very well and having a pretty good time. I have more time to read nowadays and think about literature and I just really got into remembering this poem, and also remembering that Jan Kott is the shit.