(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The unique quality of A. E. Coppard’s short fiction derives from his powers as a lyrical writer, his sympathetic understanding of the rural, lower-class folk who organically inhabit the English countryside so memorably evoked in his tales, and his “uncanny perception,” as Frank O’Connor remarked, “of a woman’s secretiveness and mystery.” Coppard’s earliest reviewers and critics emphasized the poetic quality of his tales. The title story from The Field of Mustard is one of the great stories in English, and it suggests the full range of Coppard’s creative genius, including his lyric portrayal of the English countryside and its folk, especially its women, whose language and life-consciousness seem wedded to the landscape.

“The Field of Mustard”

Like other lyric short stories, “The Field of Mustard” is nearly plotless. It opens with the suggestion that everything has already happened to the main characters, “three sere disvirgined women from Pollock’s Cross.” What remains for Coppard is to evoke the quality of these lives and the countryside of which they are a part; the tale proceeds as a kind of lyric meditation on life and death in nature. The women have come to “the Black Wood” in order to gather “dead branches” from the living trees, and on their way home, two of them, Dinah Lock and Rose Olliver, become involved in an intimate conversation that reveals the hopelessness of their lives. Rose, wishing she had children but knowing she never will, cannot understand why Dinah is not happy with her four children. Dinah complains that “a family’s a torment. I never wanted mine.” Dinah’s “corpulence dispossessed her of tragedy,” and perhaps because she has had the burden as well as the fulfillment of motherhood, she expressed the bitterness of life in what serves almost as a refrain: “Oh God, cradle and grave is all for we.” They are old but their hearts are young, and the truth of Dinah’s complaint, “that’s the cussedness of nature, it makes a mock of you,” is reflected in the world around them: The depleted women are associated with the mustard field and the “sour scent rising faintly from its yellow blooms.” Against this natural order, Dinah and Rose wish that “this world was all a garden”; but “the wind blew strongly athwart the yellow field, and the odour of mustard rushed upon the brooding women.”

As Dinah and Rose continue their conversation, they complain of their feeble husbands and discover a mutual loss: Each had been a lover of Rufus Blackthorn, a local gamekeeper. He was “a pretty man,” “handsome,” “black as coal and bold as a fox”; and although “he was good to women,” he was “a perfect devil,” “deep as the sea.” Gradually Coppard’s pattern of imagery reveals the source of these women’s loss to be the very wellspring of life—their love and sexual vitality. The suggestion is explicit in their lover’s name, “Blackthorn,” who had brought them most in life yet left them now with “old grief or new rancour.” This grim reality is suggested earlier when the women meet an old man in the Black Wood; he shows them a timepiece given him by “a noble Christian man,” but is met only with Dinah’s profane taunt, “Ah! I suppose he slept wid Jesus?” Outraged, the old man calls Dinah “a great fat thing,” shouts an obscenity, and leaving them, puts “his fingers to his nose.” Dinah’s bitter mockery of Christian love gradually merges with the sour scent of mustard and surfaces transformed in Rose’s recollection of how Blackthorn once joked of having slept with a dead man. These women, gathered in “the Black Wood” to collect dead wood from the living trees, have in effect slept with death. The yellow mustard blooms quiver in the wind, yet they are sour. The same “wind hustled the two women close together,” and they touch; but, bereft of their sexual vitality, they are left only with Dinah’s earlier observation that “it’s such a mercy to have a friend at all” and her repeated appeal, “I like you, Rose, I wish you was a man.” The tale ends with the women “quiet and voiceless,”in fading light they came to their homes. But how windy, dispossessed, and ravaged roved the darkening world! Clouds were borne frantically across the heavens, as if in a rout of battle, and the lovely earth seemed to sigh in grief at some calamity all unknown to men.

Coppard’s lyric tales celebrate the oral tradition. His stories are often tales of tales being told, perhaps in a country tavern (as in “Alas, Poor Bollington!”). In some tales an oral narrator addresses the reader directly, and in others the rural settings, the characters, and the events—often of love ending in violence—draw obviously upon the materials of traditional folk ballads. Coppard himself loved to sing ballads and Elizabethan folk songs, and the main characters in these stories are sometimes singers, or their tales are “balladed about.” In many tales, Coppard used rhythmic language, poetically inverted constructions, and repeated expressions that function as refrains in ballads. The most explicit example of a tale intended to resound with balladic qualities is “A Broadsheet Ballad,” a tale of two laborers waiting in a tavern for the rain to pass. They begin to talk of a local murder trial, and one is moved by the thought of a hanging: “Hanging’s a dreadful thing,” he exclaims; and at length, with “almost a sigh,” he repeats. “Hanging’s a dreadful thing.” His sigh serves as the tale’s refrain and causes his fellow to tell within the tale a longer tale of a love triangle that ended in a murder and an unjust hanging. Finally, the sigh-refrain and the strange narration coalesce in the laborer’s language:Ah, when things make a turn against you it’s as certain as twelve o’clock, when they take a turn; you get no more chance than a rabbit from a weasel. It’s like dropping your matches into a stream, you needn’t waste the bending of your back to pick them out—they’re no good on, they’ll never strike again.

Coppard’s lyric mode is perfectly suited to his grand theme: the darkness of love, its fleeting loveliness and inevitable entanglements and treacheries. He writes of triangles, entrapping circumstances, and betrayals in which, as often as not, a lover betrays himself or herself out of foolishness, timidity, or blind adherence to custom. Some of his best tales, like “Dusky Ruth” and “The Higgler,” dwell on the mysterious elusiveness of love, often as this involves an alluring but ungraspable woman. Men and women are drawn together by circumstances and deep undercurrents of unarticulated feeling but are separated before...

(The entire section is 2747 words.)