Another Cakewalk

Mark Twain may not be safe to read, at least in public places,
Because he gawks with foolish words at human folly’s faces;

But take a moment to digest (puts iron in your belly)
His words of outrage in defence of outraged Mrs. Shelley:

“The slave of a degrading love,” Twain says of Percy Bysshe,
Deserter of his wife and child, weak creature of a wish;

Meanwhile, Lord Tennyson in verse conceives the stirring show
Of brave Ulysses, limbered up with liniment to go

Where none had boldly gone before, except of course all those
Who, leaving wife and child behind, go after young men’s foes.

Daughter of Bill and Wollstonecraft, replacing Mrs. Shelley,
Would she have given Arnold pause, fought him with Signorelli?

Perhaps when Harriet had drowned, her bed with monsters laid,
This second Mary thought of flesh, death-broken and remade;

And where the ignorant forces clash, she sounded once or twice
Her own defence against the love that some said sounded nice.


Author’s Note: Balancing the risk of obscurantism against the risk of telling you what the poem’s about rather than inviting you to read it, here are a few clues to some of the literary history I’ve compressed, here.  For starters, the “cakewalk” reference is drawn from an allusion (one we should not repeat in the same terms, today, but apt to his purpose) that Mark Twain uses to frame his rousing “In Defense of Harriet Shelley” (if you have not read it, go immediately to here and do so). Percy Bysshe Shelley mistreated his wife Harriet to her death, and terrorized Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who were advocates of “free love until their daughter met Shelley).  Tennyson’s rousing “Ulysses” (see here to re-read it) meanwhile, has as its prose situation the aging king’s choice to abandon hearth, home, and responsibilities in favor of roving adventures with his old war buddies.  Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which famously reflects Percy in both Victor Frankenstein and his monster, and Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” in which the lovers try to cling together while considering the entire world empty of reasons for hope and joy, form bookends around such experiments as those of Shelley and Byron—and of Tennyson’s version of Odysseus.  Mary Shelley’s choice of imagery, though, also calls to mind the alternative rejected by the modern Prometheus, the hope of the resurrection vividly enacted in images like Signorelli’s The Resurrection of the Flesh, in which the dead crawl up out of their graves, skeletons are enfleshed, limbs reattached, and all stand in glorious bodies expecting the Consummation of all things.  In any case, one can imagine that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is her own “defense” in much the way Twain’s later essay rouses indignation against Percy Shelley’s abuses.


A Cakewalk Riddle

Indeed a cake, and sure no pie,
Rectangular indeed am I;
I may smell sweet, but do not eat,
Or be confounded by a lie:
For slipping through your hands,
I fly.


Post your answer in the comments section below.


Peter G. Epps is an English professor by trade, currently working at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.


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2 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    I’m tempted to go with “a bar of soap” in answer to your riddle, but “I fly” gives me pause.

  2. Fr. Richard Libby

    I am going with a cake of soap. When wet, it’s slippery, and it can go flying.


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