MISS NANCY ELLICOTT
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them-
The barren New England hills-
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.
Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.
Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
” And her aunts were not quite sure what they felt about it”
This short poem encompasses the duality, and the uncertainty that accompanies modernity. On the one hand, there is no such thing as ‘modern’. There is only the next chapter in a book that is being forever written. The only sense in which it is ‘modern’ is by the name attached to it.
“…and danced all the modern dances
…. but they knew that it was modern”. Repetition of this word emphasises its role as ‘label’.
On the other hand, there is the definite imposition of the new. If each chapter is just another chapter in the great book of time, it is also absolutely unique in it’s (albeit) temporary novelty- the fact that it has not existed before, and cannot exist in the same way ever again. (Just as every point in time and space is unique. But the uniqueness of EVERY single point in time and space almost ‘cancels out’ the singularity of each individual point.)
From the very first verse, these two aspects are juxtaposed and intermingled. The opening lines
“…Strode across the hills and broke them-
Rode across the hills and broke them”
Conjures up a Blakean image of “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” with all the legend and tradition that accompanies the dark satanic mills, being shattered and dominated by the independent, invasive, uncompromising first line “Miss Nancy Ellicott”; the definite imposition of the New.
However, the third line redefines our expectations as it is made clear that these are not the hills of an land inhabited of old, but
“The barren New England hills.” This line in itself is a revelation of a by-gone ‘modernity’, the founding of a ‘new’ England that has not had time to accrue the rich cultural tapestry of its namesake. The imposition of’modernity’ on a landscape that is a relatively blank slate, ‘barren’ suggests that this modernity in this context is merely ‘another chapter’ in a developing world. However, the ambiguous nature of the ‘modern’ is played up by the irony that this new imposition is on the basis of that which ‘New’ England was founded – the English hunt and pastoral traditions.
“ Riding to hounds / over the cow pasture”.
If the first verse uses wide-open landscape imagery to express a holistic, almost ‘spiritual’ modernising movement of liberation and breaking forth, the reference to society functions (the hunt) and the vulnerability of the rural (pastoral intonations of the cow-pasture) leads us seamlessly to the more artificial, deliberate manifestations of modernity, inevitably to be found in the city.
(Indeed, one of the original and most controversial expounders of the ‘Pastoral phenomenon’ was the Roman Virgil in his “Georgics” and “Eclogues”. Here, in a changing world, a growing empire, Virgil discussed the value of the simple way of life, the pastoral organic existence in contrast to the brutal, aggressive imperatives of empire forming.)
Modernisation is most clearly apparent in the mannerisms of self-conscious, fashionable city life, which then spills out into the wider social landscape. In this context, the ‘modern’ woman is dependent on what she dances and what she does. In the second verse, Miss Nancy Ellicott’s independence has been sacrificed to the defining verb ‘smoked’. What she does is part of who she is. Dancing and smoking are particularly time-trapped, flimsy things. “ And danced all the modern dances”. ‘All’ implies there is a list. A list compiled by fashionable gurus; a list to which one must adhere with none of the freedom implied by the opening lines. Her aunts, emblems of previous-generation establishment, are not sure what they feel about it, but they know that it is modern. Modern here seems to be a descriptive term – as one might describe the colour of a car. It is not evaluative in the sense in which we might say, “that is very adventurous” since the application of the term is devoid of feeling- subjective evaluation. These acts subscribe to an unwritten behaviour prescription. A new set of laws.
Matthew and Waldo in Eliot’s poem are Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson, seen as tutelary busts on cousin Nancy’s shelves, and (so I read ) representing with gentle mockery the forces of rational anti-Christianity. The army of unalterable law are rational, artistic forces, combating with reason a relatively ancient social tradition. The tone shifts dramatically to a stuffy study, and fossilised icons of change and revolution. In the first verse, the apparent ‘liberation’ of the ‘Modern’ is merely the evolution of times, based on nostalgia; in the second are the prescriptions that provide a new face to an old habitude, and in the last, the dead and fossilised emblems of change; The army of unalterable law. This ‘unalterable’ law is not opposed to the ‘new’ laws of modernisation, it encompasses it. Modernisation is nothing new; the ‘progress process’ is static in its constant motion. Static busts ebodying the perpetual flow of time and change – the Unalterable Law. To break this law would be to stop time.