To a Portrait of Whistler in the Brooklyn Art Museum

    What waspish whim of Fate
       Was this that bade you here
    Hold dim, unhonored state,
       No single courtier near?

    Is there, of all who pass,
       No choice, discerning few
    To poise the ribboned glass
       And gaze enwrapt on you?

    Sword-soul that from its sheath
       Laughed leaping to the fray,
    How calmly underneath
       Goes Brooklyn on her way!

    Quite heedless of that smile --
       Half-devil and half-god,
    Your quite unequalled style,
       The airy heights you trod.

    Ah, could you from earth's breast
       Come back to take the air,
    What matter here for jest
       Most exquisite and rare!

    But since you may not come,
       Since silence holds you fast,
    Since all your quips are dumb
       And all your laughter past --

    I give you mine instead,
       And something with it too
    That Brooklyn leaves unsaid --
       The world's fine homage due.

    Ah, Prince, you smile again --
    "My faith, the court is small!"
    I know, dear James -- but then
    It's I or none at all!

    Eleanor Rogers Cox

About all I can find on Eleanor Rogers Cox is that she was a lesser known Irish poet who lived a great deal of her life in New York City and was well versed in Irish legend knowing something of the artistic and literary trends of New York. She enjoyed some renown for her poetry and a few plays that appeared near the beginning of the twentieth century. She augmented her income as a seamstress and this poem seems written as a reaction to a portrait she saw in the Brooklyn Art Museum. Whistler is of course the American painter and print maker James Abbott MacNeill Whistler.

Whether or not she's referring to him as a painter, his work in general or one of his pieces in particular I can't discover. They both lived during the same time period so I wonder if their paths ever crossed. It would certainly add more interest to her pleasantly light and familiar style. Whistler died in 1903, but it seems likely she knew him only by reputation, for he was much courted in the last decade of his life, but not by seamstresses. So the context of the poem remains a mystery.


Public domain text and sources taken from The Poets’ Corner:

CST Approved.

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