14 tells the story of a merchant with extremely precious oils. The secret of how to distill the oils is passed down by word of mouth from father to son in this culture. They don’t want to let the women in on the secret.
“It was never written, not even in symbols, for this
They knew —
no secret was safe with a woman.”
The poem is beautiful and ancient as the rest of Trilogy with it’s descriptive nouns and adjectives. Alabaster boxes. Unguent jars. Sigils and painted figures. This ancient secret, sense of livelihood, and important cultural aspect was actively kept from all women for centuries. H.D.’s feminist bones poke through once again, as is a major theme in Trilogy. The speaker is perhaps hinting that, maybe, it’s time to let a woman in on the secret.
I included a picture of the Hyksos invading Egypt. The only reference to a Hyksos princess was to the Theban Princess Tany, who some believe was held captive by the Hyksos and some believe married one of the princes to create a political relationship between Thebes and the Hyksos. Either way, the princess would have been a strong symbol, either of good faith or not so good faith. Using her in the poem accentuates her symbolic nature and not her human one. The secret to eternity is held by a woman.
“though no one could of course, actually know
what was or was not in those alabaster boxes
of the Princesses of the Hyksos Kings.”
A woman is trying to get the attention of a man, trying to get him to see her for her ideas and not dismiss her based solely on her gender. She shuts the door and stares into his face with beautifully inspiring, poetic and expressive eyes. All the man sees is that her scarf fell off, revealing her hair.
“but eyes? he had known many women —
it was her hair — un-maidenly
It was hardly decent of her to stand there,
unveiled, in the house of a stranger.”
The repeated un in un-maidenly and unveiled is also significant in regards to a feminist theme in “The Flowering of the Rod.” The man only saw what she was not and misses out on her apparently awesome eyes and strong, persistant demeanor. The sarcastic ending of the poem gives it a sort of bitter-sweet closure. Because all women are the same, until they do something wrong. H.D. took something commonplace, gave it a heroic spin, but an ending that made the hero’s efforts heroic, yes, but also very futile.
I know myrrh as one of the gifts given to Jesus by the wise men, but this poem (and the other mentions of myrrh in “The Flowering of the Rod”) made me think it more symbolic than a valuable ointment given to Jesus at his birth. Because it was used to embalm and anoint the dead, myrrh came to symbolize mortality, suffering, penance and sorrow, but also resurrection. Before it can be powdered to make these ointments, myrrh hardens into tear-drop shapes. By saying Mary is of myrrh, she is saying she is mortal, yes, but nonetheless valuable. She suffers, but her suffering will be rewarded. There are various other mentions of resurrections in the poem as well.
“I am Mary — O, there are Marys a-plenty,
(though I am Mara, bitter) I shall be Mary-myrrh”
It is fairly common knowledge that the name Mary means bitter, but I found that it can also mean rebellion. When both are taken together, we can see that these “Marys a-plenty,” these women are rebelling from their given bitter lot in life. The notion of silent suffering is constricting and oppressive.
“She wept bitterly till some heathen god
changed her into a myrrh tree;”
The ending contains a reference to the Greek myth of Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s affections. Only Mary became a myrrh tree, a tree of sorrow and penance but also resurrection.
“I am Mary, she said, of Magdala,
I am Mary, a great tower;”
The painting above is Mary Magdalene, arguably one of the most well-known Marys in the Bible, along with Jesus’ mother. Various gospels paint her as a reformed prostitute who gives up everything she has to follow Jesus. Referring to her as a tower could be attributing her with wealth (of knowledge, strength, courage, etc.), as towers are a symbol of wealth accumulation. However, they are also very confined and constricting. She can grow as tall as she pleases, but she can’t widen her horizons at all.
A woman in a tiny room has light emanating from her hair. She is strong, with an unwavering voice and tearless eyes. In past centuries, as well as in certain religions today, it was/is unseemly for a woman’s hair to be visible. It is where her beauty comes from and the only man allowed to see her beauty is her husband. There are those who wear hijabs and the like who say that it is liberating, that it allows them to be seen as a person and not as an object of desire. However, there are just as many if not more who feel head coverings as a very real symbol oppression.
“There was hardly any light from the window
but there seemed to be light somewhere,”
The woman in “17” is letting her beauty out, even if this first time it is only a test. Alone, in a tiny dark alcove, she is letting down her hair and tasting its freedom.
Also connected to “15” and “17,” in “18” the man picks up the scarf, hands it to the bare-headed woman, and dismisses her.
“it was unseemly that a woman
appear disordered, dishevelled ;
it was unseemly that a woman
appear at all.”
Once again, the repetition of un and dis prefixes tells us everything a woman should not be. She should not be. A sad and bitter ending to my section, Mary-myrrh is still building her tower and stretching her roots, the rebirth not yet complete.