"Standing in the Field"
By Muriel Spark
That scarecrow standing in the field
is dress-designed as if to move
all passers-by to tears
of sorrow for his turnip face,
his battered hat, his open arms
flapping in someone else’s shirt,
his rigid, orthopedic sticks
astride someone else’s jeans,
one leg of which is short, one long.
He stands alone, he stands alone.
Two weeks ago, on April 13, at the age of 88, in Florence, Italy, Dame Muriel Spark, whom I consider one of the greatest modern English/Scottish writers, passed away. She is more well-known for her novels, such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, than for her poems. Standing in the Field is taken from All the Poems of Muriel Spark, out in May 1 in the UK on Carcanet paperback.
In this poem someone is a distance away, observing a scarecrow in a field. “dress-designed” would have one anticipate the clothes on the scarecrow to be fashionable. But later along in the poem we find he does have on something somewhat fashionable, like a pair of jeans. But they have unequal lengths. We then see why that is so.
The second line also has us tricked initially into interpreting move as physical movement, (such as a dance or a jig, perhaps?). The cutting of the line at move foregrounds this word into a powerful run-on to “all passers-by”. So move here can have undercurrents of emotion and motion, to contrast against stationary stance.
For birds the scarecrow is meant to be scary, to frighten them away from the crops in the field, but for us we should cry with tears of laughter for the funny “turnip face”. But the cutting of the third line at tears, another powerful run-on, has the extension to it as “of sorrow”.
“battered hat” might not be as innocuous as they sound, as are “his open arms”. They can connote defenselessness against violence. “flapping”, in the line after, has this movement contrast sheer with the stiffness in “rigid, orthopedic sticks”, and this compounds the sadness of someone with no legs. His “dress-designed” clothes – shirt and jeans - are not even his own possessions but “someone else’s”, the repetition of which drives home the wretchedness of such poverty or dispossession.
All the lines have been written in a strict regular 4-beat rhythm. There are a few beat or stress promotions of unstressed words, in the first couple of lines. Line 3 has only 3 beats, but you could place a silent or virtual beat at the end, to effect a pause, like a gulping. And this would make the run-on here even more prominent or effecting.
The only slight variations in the rising tone – or iambic metre, for old-school stylists - are in the two lines describing “someone else’s shirt” and “someone else’s jeans”. They have tone or beat/stress inversions. In “flapping in someone else’s shirt” , the first pair of syllables are inverted, from fall-rise to rise-fall. When you quicken the reading of the non-stresses in “flapping in”, the effect here is one of sharp and quick movements. “astride someone else’s jeans” has the second pair of syllables inverted. The length of time to read the stresses in “astride someone” makes for a stretching effect (of legs widening apart?).
The last line has the narrator seeing, finally, that the fashionable but crippled object afar, stock-still in the field, is all so profoundly by himself. The echoing of “He stands alone” brings home to us poignantly how small and alone he is within the wide stretch of the field.