I am not quite sure exactly how the subject had surfaced in our conversation that day, but I will never forget the look on Mister Miner’s face when I expressed my initial thoughts on this poem.
We were seated on a busy street corner café on a Sunday afternoon. Mister Miner had been raving about the place since I first met him. Now he was going into detail about the parts of the world from which the beans had originated and how residents of the new condominium towers in the distance complained about the roasting fumes.
“So you’re just about to do the commentary for ‘The Jingle Bells of Life’” he said, “what do you have to say about it?”
“Not much,” I said offhandedly, “it’s so basic and all.”
This is where that unforgettable look appeared on Mister Miner’s face.
“I’m so glad you said that to me before you got to him.” Choked Mister Miner, almost losing his mouthful of coffee.
“How did you know I had not mentioned it to him before?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well,” he began, biting his lip and drumming his fingers, “only because you are sitting here in front of me unaware that such a question would not be tolerated.” “ You don’t think the Doctor would ever—”
“Don’t be silly,” he broke in tactfully, “at least not the first time.”
“Well what is such a big deal about it?” I asked, reproaching myself internally for questioning his sincerity (he had always been so frank and honest with me, you see).
“Listen,” he intimated, pulling his chair beside mine, “I don’t want you to feel as if you’ve missed any details you should rightfully have seen.”
“It’s because I’m a bad commentator, isn’t it,” I said, gazing dejectedly into my half-empty coffee cup1, “you should have chosen someone with a vaster knowledge of poetry than me. At least some sort of writer.”
“Come on,” he reassured, patting me on the back, “remember what I said to you when I read over your notes for your commentary on ‘The Silver Circle’?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling somewhat better about myself, “you said that I saw all of the very things the academics had missed.”
“Ha ha!” he laughed raucously into the air, a skittish patron dropped a coffee mug with a shattering splash at the opposite end of the patio, “I still can’t believe you figured out the conductor line,” he congratulated, “and all the silly referencing and the awkward phrasing—you’re miles ahead of the rest, they’re really going to destroy me for that, ha ha!”
I felt warm inside. Mister Miner really has a rare gift of bringing me to my senses. “Well,” I said, “we’ve covered what I’ve been able to unearth, but what exactly did I miss in ‘The Jingle Bells of Life’?”
“Well, in a roundabout sense, it isn’t that you missed something in the poem. It is that you missed something in Dr. Spectacles. Have you spent much time with him?”
“Yes, a great deal of time.” I said, recounting the trauma.
“Hmm,” he murmured, “I’m afraid you probably have a great deal left to learn.”
“How do you know so much about him?” I caught myself asking before I could check myself, “Forgive me, I mean—I didn’t want to sound accusatory, but when was the last time you even spoke to him face-to-face.”
“Admittedly, it has been some time,” he began, “it’s better for both of us really.”
“Is there hope of solving your differences?” I asked, perhaps rhetorically, “there’s not many poets left out there to bounce your ideas off of.”
“Well, one accord that Dr. Spectacles and I share is our disagreement with that very notion.” He said, cracking a smile.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“We both believe that a poet is the worst person for a poet to talk to about poetry.”
“How is a poet a bad person for a poet to talk to about poetry?” I asked, fumbling over some of my words.
“It’s not that they are necessarily bad,” he shrugged, “but just about anybody else is better if you want to ground your work in the real world rather than taking steppingstones away from it.”
“I see,” I said, “I never thought about that.”
“And poets tend to endow certain aspects of their respective styles with too much value when they are among fellow poets. They begin to shirk change in their own work because they have already made defensive remarks about aspects of it to other poets and they want to save face. No,” he said, “Dr. Spectacles and I have made a separate peace.”
“Hemingway?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“That’s right—love him or hate him, but for lines like that you don’t have a choice.”
“So what have I missed in Dr. Spectacles that I need to know in order to crack ‘The Jingle Bells of Life’?”
“Have you ever read The Bell Jar?” he asked.
“That’s the semi-autobiographical book that Sylvia Plath wrote—it was her one book of prose—she wrote under a pseudonym, ah, Victoria—”
“Lucas,” he said, “Victoria Lucas.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “it was about a girl suffering from depression—she had some love troubles at first—nothing out of the ordinary. And then she was committed—”
“Shoddily diagnosed, given electroshock therapy and almost killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.” He continued.
“So analogous to Plath’s own life that she used a pseudonym.”
“Careful,” he warned, “that’s after the fact, therefore as a result of the fact reasoning.”
“ True, but still—let’s not get too much deeper into her personal life.” I said, feeling a bit squeamish.
“Take it easy,” he said, “the details are not the issue here. It is her sentiment toward life that is.”
“She had problems.” I said.
“I’m not blaming her for what she did to herself,” he protested. I could tell this was a difficult subject for him too. “I won’t contest that she was robbed from us far too soon and I won’t contest that a great body of art disappeared along with her.”
“I’m sorry.” I said.
“You shouldn’t be, it’s not your fault—I don’t think it was hers either.” He reassured, patting me on the shoulder again. I felt perhaps I should have been the one offering him solace. “Do you know why she called her novel The Bell Jar?” he asked.
“No.” I said.
“Because if you are trapped inside a bell jar, you can see everything happening around you but only an external influence can grab the handle from above and set you free.”
“Where did you read that?” I asked.
“Nowhere,” he said, pausing for a moment as a large truck drove past, “but that’s the sense of hopeless entrapment I feel every time I read it.”
“But what does that have to do with Dr. Spectacles’ poem?” I asked, growing increasingly puzzled
“Well,” he said, looking guardedly from side to side, “Spectacles and Plath have a bit of a history.”
“They were involved?” I exclaimed loudly.
“Not exactly,” he began, motioning for me to lower my voice. The skittish man who dropped his coffee cup earlier jumped up from his chair and was now speedwalking down the sidewalk, intermittently checking over his shoulder.
“What happened between them?” I whispered.
“I don’t know the full story,” he whispered back, “he’s pretty touchy about the whole affair.”
“Affair?” I said.
“No,” he shot back, “not like that—I’m not sure if they ever even met.”
“Oh,” I said, “well—.”
“The important thing,” he continued, “is the influence Plath had over him.”
“Influence?” I asked skeptically, “he refuses that anyone has influenced him.”
“Ha ha, yes,” he chuckled, “I bet he has refuted any Edward Lear influence as well.”
“Indeed he has.”
“Well, as much as Lear may or may not have influenced him, Plath is a for sure candidate.”
“What makes you so positive?”
“Well, he may get touchy about the Lear associations, but even the mention of Sylvia Plath gets him catatonic.” He said.
“Is that all the evidence you have?”
“What more do I need?” he smiled, “but if you’d like something more conclusive, look for Plath literature lying around the next time you are over for a visit.”
“Wait,” I said, “come to think of it I have seen a few of her books of poetry opened and off to the side—I’ve never seen The Bell Jar there though.”
“No, you wouldn’t have—that one he keeps entirely to himself.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
Mister Miner took another hesitant look around, and just as another large truck rumbled down the street, he leaned over and whispered into my ear, “a certain insider told me.”
“Butler?” I asked.
“Shh,” he warned.
“Ok, ok, ok, we both have to get going—what do Sylvia Plath generally and The Bell Jar particularly have to do with ‘The Jingle Bells of Life’?”
“Well, what is the subject of the poem?” he asked Socratically, resting his chin on his knuckles.
“It is about triumphing over hardship through the love of writing.” I said.
“Correct,” he said, “at least as far as the last three lines are concerned. What about the first line?”
“ ‘Will someone give a wiggle to my jingle bells of life’?”, I asked.
“Yes, what is its significance?”
“I certainly hope that ‘jingle bells’ does not refer to anything anatomical.” I said cringing.
“No,” he laughed, “he is asking for an external influence to enact something which will put him on the road to happiness.”
“But then,” I broke in, “he concludes the poem by stating that despite all of his hardship, it is his own writing that saves him, rather than an external influence.”
“Do you see any similarities with The Bell Jar?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but the speaker quickly realizes that his happiness is dependant on something internal rather than something external.”
“So he breaks through the bell jar?”
“Yes.” I said.
“But for the record,” warned Mister Miner, “remember Plath’s was an entirely different case than Dr. Spectacles.”
“Of course,” I said, “who knows what she was facing.”
“Who knows what he faces?” he remarked.
“True,” I conceded, “I guess we all have to find a way to break through.”
“Anyhow, always a pleasure,” he said, rising to his feet, “What are you going to say to Spectacles?”
“I’m going to say exactly what I told you before: ‘not much, it’s so basic and all.”
He smiled, chuckling to himself as he walked away.
“Wait,” I called after him, “is that all the evidence we have linking ‘The Jingle Bells of Life’ to The Bell Jar?” Some patrons in the inside portion of the café seemed perplexed.
“No,” he said, turning with a curious smile, “The Bell Jar?” , ‘Jingle Bells’—think about it.” And he was gone.
Well, the evidence is shaky at best, but why else would Dr. Spectacles have called his poem “The Jingle Bells of Life”? I have laid out all the information I have here before you. If, when I next visit Dr. Spectacles he has nothing contradictory to say about my “basic and all” theory, I will conclude my entry here.