The male gaze (4) “Envoicing”

Two more posts in this sequence…just in case you’re thinking the line will stretch out to the crack of doom. And it keeps me busy while I wait for stuff that’s in the pipeline from a bunch of new guest poems.

I was reminded on Wednesday night about why it’s important to keep on teasing out the issues. Driving back late-ish from a great night at The Puzzle Poets Live, chatting away to Laura Potts who just goes on and on winning prizes and plaudits. At some point we got on to the subject of what had been one of my favourite poems as a teenager. I was talking about how important time seems to be when you acknowledge you’re running out of it. Time’s winged chariot / deserts of vast eternityTo his Coy Mistress. 

Taken aback when Laura told me that she thought it was a poem with a horrible message…and quoted the bit about worms shall try /that long-preserved virginity. Which gave me a well-deserved jolt, because I realised that somehow I’d always managed to edit that out. Woah!! A valuable lesson.

What I’d thought, at 16, a sardonic, playful (and possibly tongue-in-cheek) piece of seduction, a poem shared between equals, was from another viewpoint calculating, cynical and misogynistic. Shifted me right out of my comfort zone, and quite right too. Which is why I’ll go on a bit longer with this process of asking questions about poems I’ve written.

Right; onwards and hopefully upwards. Poet Pam Thompson wrote a really interesting comment on the last post, describing what I was doing with some of the poems was “envoicing”. I was much taken by the idea, conflating it, I suppose, with Robert MacFarlane’s idea of “en-chantment”….that is to bring into being, or to call up, by language. I’d always thought of the business of dramatic monologues as ‘ventriloquism’, but envoicing seems much more an act of imaginative invention. I’ve written before about what brought me into it. Basically, I was looking to break out of my own ‘voice’ and its way of seeing, and what unlocked the door was Carole Ann Duffy’s The world’s wife. An absolute revolution at the time, to me, ‘envoicing’ all those female voices in a series of revisionist versions of myth and legend. Eventually it lead me to finding voices for a whole range of sculpted figures…the angel of the North, Epstein’s St. Michael,  Rodin’s kissing lovers, one of Anthony Gormley’s figures on Crosby Sands, and so on. But the first  project, which produced a lot less than I thought it might, was to explore the relationship between the late Victorian painter, John Waterhouse, and his (supposed) favourite model.



I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. While I’ve been worrying away at this business of the male and the female gaze, I’ve revisited the poems, and I’m not sure what I feel about them any more.

Take the case of the envoicing of Muriel Foster. As far as the most reliable researcher could make out she was probably the daughter of a bourgeouis Quaker family who were friends of the Waterhouses. Bear in mind that Waterhouse himself was trained in a tradition that taught figure painting from statues, rather than from living models, and yet from the age of about 15, Muriel Foster ‘sat’ for him in painting after painting, right up to his death in 1915/16. She had trained as a nurse in the late 1890s, (bear in mind it took Florence Nightingale to turn it into a respectable profession) and she died, aged 90, in a nursing home in St. Leonards on Sea. I wondered and wondered how she could have come to model for this eminently respectable and successful painter. It seemed to me that the only way I could ‘get at it’ was to imagine her much older, reflecting on her own story. I still find it baffling, but here’s the poem I wrote after a long and painful process.




Miss Muriel Foster

He asked if he might do a pencil sketch;

a simple head and shoulders;

said my hair would grace ‘his mermaid’;

told me of a vision of combed silk,

of autumn-umber leaves against white skin,

a sea impossibly green and cold,

irridescent scales, warm flesh….

and it seemed that I could hear the mermaid’s song

and that I sang it.

So,suddenly, I said I’d sit for him. Unclothed.

That’s how things came to be. That first time.


You know ‘The water babies’? Yes?

You see, I thought that as a waterchild,

like Tom, or Ellie, I would be unafraid –

– no unaware – of nakedness. So, I imagined

high grey crags, sweet turf, the limestone beck,

and how poor Tom, so hot and trammelled

became so cool and clean. So, simply done.

How to put it? All was loose and lovely.


Stillness? Quiet? I’d always loved the Meeting’s

silences. And, oh, his eyes were grave

and serious. I think I never felt so much

myself before. I think I never felt so real.


So many sittings, so much peace. Such dreams.

So many stories in that steady gaze.

He transfigured me; I was Danae

inaccessible in a tower until Zeus came

in a shower of gold.. and so was set adrift…

Naiad, dryad, temptress, nymph, Ophelia;

so many lives he drew for me to live

in his quiet studio; or even, by a river bank,

La belle dame sans merci; my kneeling knight

in all his heraldry, his armour softly gleaming,

and the air starred with flowers, a heart on my sleeve,

my living hair ensnaring him, there in the dark copse,

and I pulling him close, and his eyes so dark.

Oh my.


In all those years among the weak, the hurt

along the wards,soiled dressings,

starch and metal, antiseptic air, I knew

that there were always other worlds

that only he and I could make.


The last work that I did for him

was never finished.The Enchanted Garden.

There I stoop to prove

the scent of one pale rose.

Never kissed his living face.


He was my Hylas, and I, desire multipled.

See how he painted me. Each nymph

wears a flower in her hair,

but I the only one to wear a rose.

The one who holds his hand, who clasps his arm,

is me. Or who I used to be.

I seem to imagine her, not sentimental exactly, but still puzzled by her own innocence. Which raises a lot of issues, I suppose. You’ll let me know, I hope. Esther Waterhouse, the artist’s wife, seemed less difficult at the time. Some 10 years his junior, she had been a watercolourist, but apparently gave up exhibiting after their marriage. In the years following his death she was increasingly in financial difficulty, having to sell their home. Cared for at some time by relatives ,she died in a nursing home in 1944. My starting point was the one portrait that Waterhouse painted of her, in a style quite unlike any of his meticulous pictures of, say, The Lady of Shallot. What would she have made of it? (I like it a lot..I like the textured painterliness of it, the energy, the vitality).

ophelia 6

Esther Waterhouse

See me,a brown patch.

No expense wasted here.

Don’t talk to me about the avant garde,

about  advances, fashions;

this is how he sees me: brown, trowelled.


Where’s the sensitivity? the sables?

softness of touch? the gleam of subtly considered skin?

expensive pigment? translucent lakes?

This is plastering.

Where are the coppiced stems? the salt shores?

the limpid pools? the dog roses? gentle petals

like the skin of babies that we never had?

Why the mud, the shale, the clay?

Why this drab suttee? Why lay me in this murk,

this dark laminate, this clotted earth?


And now I’ve read his last confession.

Tell me. Should I laugh or cry?

Be numb; or bitter; sour; an unripe thing?

What am I left with now?

His house. His dog. This portrait.

Not enough to live on,

and canvasses that no-one wants to buy.

I read The Times obit. again,

that condescension, damning with faint praise.

They judge his work ‘agreeable’,

consider that ‘he never quite found himself’.

Let me beg to differ, now I’ve found

the man I thought I knew.

I’ll burn it all. The letters, private diaries.

I’ll not be mocked or pitied.

My questions all are answered here,

and now I know. I think I always knew.

I’ll leave nothing. No.

All this can go into the fire.


I’ll leave you to imagine that ‘confession’ which is sort-of-made in the poem I wrote in his voice, as he contemplates his own death. All the three poems are in Outlaws and Fallen Angels. I’m always happy to sell anyone a copy. See My books via the menu at the top of the post. In the meantime, are these ‘envoicings’ in Pam Thompson’s terms, or just clumsy examples of ‘the male gaze’ ?

Just one post in this sequence, when I’ll look at two female ‘victim’ figures. See you then




6 thoughts on “The male gaze (4) “Envoicing”

  1. On ‘To His Coy Mistress’ – as a sixteen year old you responded to the rhetoric of the poem; the fact it was a ‘poem’ and therefore the intertwining of subject, style, context would/ always will be complex. Yes, it’s a poem about ‘seduction’; coercion even. The power dynamics are almost certainly as they appear. They word ‘coy’ is loaded, entirely gendered – as we read it now especially. I would love to hear her version. The great thing about poetry – literature- is that we keep reading and re-reading it through all it’s different contexts in time. It’s likely Marvell was trying to impress a load of (male) poet peers, and maybe a patron or two.It’s urgent, horny, and yes, pretty horrible in the way he refers to the female body and assumed virginity. The woman is silent – as so often. This is why we -especially women writers – need to ‘envoice’ invisible/silent female subjects. Like Shakespeare did, he subverts – bypasses rather – the Petrarchan tradition (which was an evasive version of what he’s doing) to get straight to the point ‘Let’s fuck before we die’. Like it or loathe all that, as a poem -linguistic construct -it’s pretty impressive! John, you might like to read ‘The Finders of London’, a collection by Anna Robinson, especially the sequence where she gives voice to the victims of Jack the Ripper.


  2. Thank you SO much for this. I think you should be writing these posts! I especially like your referencing Shakespeare. I think I might come back to the business of the dramatist as opposed to the poet. Thank you for reading xxxxxx


  3. Hello John
    I wrote a comment but it disappeared somewhere. I am really enjoying your ‘Male Gaze’ posts. As an English teacher I was always very aware of the imagery in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and always explored it with A level students who were quite shocked by it. I used to get them to think about what the response of the woman might be to him. What was she like and what was she thinking or what would she do/reply? Was she naive, young and overwhelmed be his clever argument? Has he misjudged her and does she find him clever but laughable? Is she just disgusted by his attempt to coerce her? Interestingly, a male colleague had a different take completely and had always found the character of the man engagingly cheeky and ‘laddish’ in his cleverness without really noticing the horrible imagery.
    Another favourite of mine is Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ where we hear a very controlling, menacing, narcissistic character. Again the woman whose marriage he is arranging is not seen or heard from- she has no voice at all, symbolic of his view of her and her likely fate should she be a woman with a voice I suppose.
    Hope you are well. It is lovely up in the north-east today.
    Elaine Riley


  4. That’s made me think. I guess that I’ve always thought that women are wiser, more worldly-intelligent, and generally more grown-up than me. It never crossed my mind that Marvell’s narrator might be exploitative. I assumed (unconsciously, I guess) that the unseen, unheard woman is at least his match, that she’s equal in this ‘game’. I assumed that she would be just as clever as he was. A bit Simone de Beauvoir, maybe. I assumed that about John Donne’s women, too. I imagined, I suppose, a worldly world of smart eloquent men and women. Whereas Browning’s Duke is is imply an out and out sadistic bastard, and imagine that the poor sod he’s showing round his possessions is thinking mainly about how soon he can get out alive. Oh..another thing. I was reading Marvell at a time when I genuinely believed the world would shortly disappear in a nuclear holocaust. From the first Bikini Atoll tests to the Cuban missile crisis, that was. After Cuba, I stopped worrying. Basically, those deserts of vast eternity seemed very real. It’s fascinating how much of the fiction I read in my late teenage years was apocalyptic and dystopian. 1984, Brave New World, and all the popular science fiction of The Death of Grass and The Kraken Wakes….all that John Wyndham stuff. There was absolutely no such thing in the late 50s and early 60s as optimistic SciFi. That may make sense. xxxx


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