»  To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train


To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

by Frances Cornford (1886-1960)


•  Background

For more on Frances Cornford, and another of her poems, see here.

"To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train" is Cornford's best-known production. It first appeared in 1908 when she was 22 years old. It generated numerous parodies, of which the best-known is by G.K. Chesterton, which I have reproduced below the poem itself.

This is a triolet, described thus by Louis Untermeyer in his 1926 book The Forms of Poetry.

The triolet is one of the neatest of the French forms. It is a single stanza of eight lines with only two rhymes — the first line being repeated in its entirety as the fourth, and the first and second lines being repeated in their entirety as the seventh and eighth lines. If the smaller italics represent rhymes and the capital letters stand for lines, the formula for a triolet would be:


It can be seen that the triolet is not adapted for any profound emotion; its point lies in its grace and skillful turn of phrase. The best triolets are not only ingenious, but, as one poet [W.E. Henley] has put it, "nothing can be more playfully sly than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody turning so simply upon its own axis."

This poem does not conform perfectly to Untermeyer's description. When repeating line one as line four Cornford drops the leading "O"; but that is well within the bounds of poetic license.

I smile to think that an early 21st-century reader who knew nothing about Frances Cornford or the date of the poem might read some racial negativity — antagonism or guilt — into the phrase "fat white woman." That the poet had any such thing in mind is extremely improbable. The England she knew was monoracial and its inhabitants spent very little time thinking about such matters — certainly not enough time for a cult of anti-whiteness to have developed among upper-middle-class white people like herself. White ethnomasochism is a recent phenomenon. Her grandfather Charles Darwin had thought about race, of course; but, at least in the case of human races, ambiguously.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

by Frances Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?


•  G.K. Chesterton's counter-poem (1927). Note: "Old Dutch" in the last line is a common British slang term for "wife." It's nothing to do with the Netherlands. "Dutch" is just an abbreviation of "duchess."

The Fat White Woman Speaks

G.K. Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much.
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?