Phyllis McGinley refound

You know how some novels or poems stick in your head for years? And how those are usually the ones you loaned to somebody and never got back? And how, when you can’t stand it any more and decide to get another copy, it’s out of print and totally unavailable? Well, I’m happy to report that once in while a miracle happens and the book is once again yours.

For ages and ages, I’ve been wishing I had one of Phyllis McGinley’s books of poetry that I had foolishly let get away. I particularly wanted it for a poem about the virtues some reformist — I thought it was John Knox — had required in a wife, like chastity and cleanliness. As I recalled, the poem had ended, “Likely as not, that’s all he got.” That’s about all I remembered. I probably could have tracked it down if I’d tried harder, but I didn’t remember the title of the poem or the title of the book or the year it was published, and for a long time I looked for it under the name McGintley rather than McGinley. It finally took on a kind of lost gem quality, like a beloved ring that you have to finally accept is gone forever.

This morning’s mail included a padded envelope holding a clothbound copy of McGinley’s Times Three, so old the edges of the pages are golden. But it’s in good shape, with no dog-eared pages or writing in the margins. The copyright date is 1960, and there’s a foreward by W.H. Auden. It was from my son, who probably found it at one of his community’s book sales.

I found the poem I remembered on page 27. It wasn’t about John Knox, but Calvin. The last line isn’t exactly the way I remembered it either, but it still makes me grin. With a middle stanza omitted, this is what Phyllis McGinley had to say about John Calvin’s marriage:

These are the virtues Calvin thought desirable
In a wife: an even mood,
Chastity, patience, thrift, and an untirable
For her lord’s health. Here ends the simple list—
And not one word
Tells us if he admired a delicate wrist
Or much preferred
A hazel eye to brown or amethyst.
What! Had he not some choice
Of statures? Was he not partial in the matter
Of a right female voice,
Desire but silence or a wrenlike chatter?
And did not kindness count, or a cool repose?
A cheek of white-and-rose?
Or courtesy? Or wit?

Of Mistress Calvin we know little save
She was eight years a wife,
Well-dowered, also “honorable and grave”
And lived a quiet life.
One hopes against hope that she was debonair
And managed to mingle with connubial care
For his dyspepsia, some small tendernesses.
But miracles are rare.
One’s better guess is
(And all we have is Calvin’s list to go on)
That since he asked, besides a sensible dot,
Only thrift, patience, chastity and so on,
Likely it’s what he got.


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