Reading: My Madonna by Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was known as the bard of Yukon, because a lot of his poetry was inspired by his time as a cowboy in Canada. He is also a war poet, having been a reporter of the Balkan war of 1912-13 and an ambulance driver during World War One. I read a funny poem titled My Madonna:

My Madonna
I haled me a woman from the street,
Shameless, but, oh, so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the Worst had been the Best.

She laughed at my picture and went away.
Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say;
“’Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”

So I painted a halo round her hair,
And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.

That is an opening you could be arrested for in #2017. “To hale” is archaic and means to cause to do through pressure. I hear “to hail”, like hailing a cab. Shameless but oh so fair is a great way to say in a compact way what philosophers would say in long and boring sentences about how esthetic truth precedes moral truth.

So, he paints a portrait of the ‘haled’ woman, making her look pretty perfect, even putting a babe at her breast. He basically paints the opposite of what he sees. Of course the woman laughs at him and his picture, but it is the true Mother Mary, can’t you see?

I can’t find the church of Saint Hillaire; there are several Saint Hilaire’s. Is it simply a silly way to say the painting, and the Church itself, is hilarious? I always enjoy a good mocking of the Catholic church, but do you know a stronger poem by mr. Service?

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