Bret Harte's "Mrs. Judge Jenkins"
As an exercise in dramatizing a “what if” scenario in which Maud and the judge actually do marry and then having their marriage bitterly disappoint them both, Harte’s poem offers a clever, even comically interesting piece of work. However, by inserting the issue of what should or should not have happened as a logical philosophical stance, Harte diminishes the force of his creative dramatic response to Whittier’s poem.
Therefore, unfortunately, Harte succeeds only in demonstrating his contempt for Whittier, the subject of the Whittier poem, and the truth about human nature that Whittier so eloquently captures.
Harte’s parody, “Mrs. Judge Jenkins,” features 24 rimed couplets. In Harte’s version, the judge does return to Maud’s rustic farm, and they do marry. The reader, however, is treated only to judge’s viewpoint, and it is not a pretty sight.
Couplets 1-6: “Maud Muller, all that summer day”
Harte begins his travesty by merely offering a near word for word couplet from Whittier: “Maud Muller, all that summer day, / Raked the meadow sweet with hay.” But he rapidly recovers by adding that Maud was looking for the judge to return. And then the judge does return, and Maud’s dopy, hick expression replaces the charm and grace of Whittier’s Maud. All this bumbling rube can muster in response to the judges “smile and bow” is a blush and “Ha-ow.”
She then wonders if her “Pa” will let her marry the judge, and quickly the reader learns that Pa is overjoyed, and bums ten dollars from the judge, “For trade was dull, and wages low, / And the ‘craps,’ this year, were somewhat slow.”
The reader is alerted that these country folk are nothing more than bottom feeders; Maud is inarticulate; her father a money-grubber ready to sell his daughter, and the father also proves to be a gambler. This scene sharply contrasts with what the judge had envisioned about these country folk.
Couplets 7-12: “And ere the languid summer died”
The judge and Maud marry and all of Maud’s relatives, including her brother Bob became “very drunk.” By the next year, Maud has twins and becomes obese, which disgusts the poor judge, who can no longer get his arms around his wife.
Couplets 13-18: “Was more than he now could span. And he”
Not only is his wife’s body grossly transformed, making the judge wish for her former slender shape, but he also wishes his twins “Looked less like the man who raked the hay.” The judge regrets that he came back to the farm, and now dreams of marrying a “maiden fair and thoroughbred.”
Couplets 19-24: “For there be women fair as she”
The judge now wishes he had a woman with an education, someone “Whose verbs and nouns do more agree.” And Maud also thinks the “judge a bore”; this fact is all the reader learns from Maud’s point of view.
Harte’s two final couplets hold up a weak contrast to Whittier’s: “If, of all words of tongue and pen, / The saddest are, ‘It might have been,’ / / More sad are these we daily see: ‘It is, but hadn't ought to be’.” Trying to out-clever Whittier, Harte says that if the human heart regrets the absence of what might have been, then it should regret even more what should not have been. However, Whittier’s drama does not address the issue of what “should” have been.
Whittier’s characters simply dream of what “might” have been in contrast to what was. Harte’s insertion of the issue of what “should” have been is tantamount to erecting a straw man so he can ridicule Whittier’s observation. But it is not possible to regret what “should” have been or what “should” not have been because there is no way of knowing how things would have turned out if the couple had actually married.
Harte’s greatest flaw is his failure to address Whittier’s important realization about the human soul. Of course, addressing that issue would have caused Harte’s house of cards to come tumbling down. Harte’s characters remain hide-bound, gross, and pitiful, and Harte has nothing to offer them, but Whittier offers the satisfaction of the soul’s ultimate realization of “sweet hope.”
The Poetry of Bret Harte
This collections includes "Mrs. Judge Jenkins"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes