Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this poem, written in the first person, a woman—the speaker—walks up and down her garden paths in the early summer. She notes the pattern of the yellow daffodils and the "bright blue squills." She wears a "stiff, brocaded gown" and seems dressed to the nines with "powdered hair and jewelled fan." She sees the patterns of the flowers in the garden and feels, "I too am a rare / Pattern." Her dress, with its train, is of the "current fashion," covering a corset containing stays made of whale-bone, and she wears high-heeled shoes. She says there is no "softness anywhere" about her, though the flowers are free to "Flutter in the breeze / As they please." She cries because she does not have this freedom.
The sound of water splashing in the fountain seems to remind her that under her "stiffened gown" there is "the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin." She imagines water sliding over her body like a lover's hands might and imagines embracing her lover so tightly that "the buttons of his waistcoat bruis[e]" her naked body. She feels weighted down by her stiff and heavy dress and by the undergarments beneath it; she wishes they were in a "heap upon the ground" and she were free of them.
Underneath the bosom of her dress, she carries a letter brought to her that day, indicating that her fiancé, a colonel, was killed while fighting in a battle several days earlier. She's been walking since she first read it. She thinks about how they were to marry in one month in this very garden, where they "would have broke[n] the pattern"—perhaps subtly hinting that she would have finally been able to be free to give in to the sensuous side hidden beneath her stiff dress. He, evidently, wanted to wait to marry in the summer sunlight, which he said "carried blessing." But "Now he is dead," and the two will never marry; the speaker will never know the romantic freedom she has imagined.
The woman must have loved him deeply, as she does not seem to plan to marry another. Instead, she will walk "Up and down" in "Summer and in Winter" in her "stiff, brocaded gown." She will watch as one flower gives way to another and another and then, finally, to snow. She will continue the pattern, too: "Gorgeously arrayed, / Boned and stayed." The "softness of my body," she says, "will be guarded from embrace" by the stiff dress, and she laments that her fiancé—"the man who should loose me" from the lack of contact with another body—is dead.
In the end, the speaker laments patterns in general, calling the war in which her fiancé died yet another. This "pattern called a war" is much like the one which ensconces her body in a stiff and unnatural dress—as if to shield her as a woman from the nature of her own body and desire—and which organizes plants and landscapes into "patterned garden paths." All these arrangements impose civilization and society on what is otherwise free and natural. In the speaker's grief and frustration at all these constraints on her life and love, patterns such as these seem arbitrary and haphazard, unable to address the true nature of life or provide any solace—and so she cries, "Christ! What are patterns for?"