This week’s Featured Poem is ‘Envy’ by Adelaide Anne Procter, chosen by The Reader’s Head of Learning and Quality, Clare Ellis.
Envy – most of us experience this uncomfortable feeling at one time or another in our lives. I don’t think I have ever encountered such a fixed account of it as expressed in the thoughts of Adelaide Anne Procter. You hope that you might grow out of your envy, that you’ll become a better version of yourself. As I was first reading this poem, I was waiting for such a turning point… but none came, and I find that particularly sad.
‘He was always the first’. I wonder who the ‘He’ is here, the subject of such envy. Could they be siblings, I wonder? And is such envy more likely to be between two brothers (or two sisters, say) rather than a brother and sister? I have a slightly older brother and can honestly say I have never found myself to be envious of him and yet I know of many siblings of the same gender for whom the situation can be very different. Which makes me ask – are we more likely to feel envy towards particular people and why might that be so?
‘He was always the first’. First born? First in preference to others? First to succeed? Why is coming first in something so important to some people?
‘We ran; my feet were all bleeding,
But he won the race.’
What is this race? It makes me think of life in terms of a competition, where it is not only a case of completing your goals, but finishing first. I am also struck by the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ here… I think of friends growing up now, rather than siblings, starting off at the same point in life, and yet going on in so many different directions. And, I am sorry to say, while I have not felt envy towards my brother, I have unfortunately felt it towards my friends over the years, whose lives seem to have gone as planned while mine has taken on a somewhat more struggling path.
I had hoped the poem would provide a way out of this cyclical trap of envy, with never ending comparisons drawn between the one who feels the lack compared to the one who seems to have all the gain. They tell us we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other people – that it is one of the worst things we can do. We need to be content in ourselves, value what we have rather than what we don’t. And yet, there’s still that feeling… envy.
I feel sad for the person in the poem as I leave them in the last few lines:
‘While he is at rest,
I am cursed to live:- even
Death loved him the best.’
I feel it sad that the person does not recognise that the feeling of envy is the real curse, not themselves. Its sad that the person seems prevented from feeling sympathy for the deceased ‘He’ in the poem, but rather seems to even make his loss of life another woe, for themselves to feel hard done by, as it were. If there are any poems or pieces of writing out there that can provide a different turning point, to help the one left standing embrace what they have rather than what they haven’t, please do let me know. I don’t want to be left here.
How sweet I’ve wander’d bosom-deep in grain,
When Summer’s mellowing pencil sweeps his shade
Of ripening tinges o’er the checquer’d plain:
Light tawny oat-lands with a yellow blade;
And bearded corn, like armies on parade;
Beans lightly scorch’d, that still preserve their green;
And nodding lands of wheat in bleachy brown;
And streaking banks, where many a maid and clown
Contrast a sweetness to the rural scene,–
Forming the little haycocks up and down:
While o’er the face of nature softly swept
The ling’ring wind, mixing the brown and green
So sweet, that shepherds from their bowers have crept,
And stood delighted musing o’er the scene.
He was the first always: Fortune
Shone bright in his face.
I fought for years; with no effort
He conquered the place:
We ran; my feet were all bleeding,
But he won the race.
Spite of his many successes
Men loved him the same;
My one pale ray of good fortune
Met scoffing and blame.
When we erred, they gave him pity,
But me – only shame.
My home was still in the shadow,
His lay in the sun:
I longed in vain: what he asked for
It straightway was done.
Once I staked all my heart’s treasure,
We played–and he won.
Yes; and just now I have seen him,
Cold, smiling, and blest,
Laid in his coffin. God help me!
While he is at rest,
I am cursed still to live:– even
Death loved him the best.
by Adelaide Anne Procter
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