[(essay date fall 1988) In the following essay, Thomas provides a line-by-line explication of Lawrence's poem, "After the Opera."]
"After the Opera"Down the stone stairs Girls with their large eyes wide with tragedy Lift looks of shocked and momentous emotions up at me. And I smile. Ladies Stepping like birds with their bright and pointed feet Peer anxiously forth, as if for a boat to carry them out of the wreckage, And among the wreck of the theatre crowd I stand and smile. They take tragedy so becomingly. Which pleases me. But when I meet the weary eyes The reddened aching eyes of the bar-man with thin arms, I am glad to go back where I came from.
The poem ["After the Opera"] appears in the collection Bay.1 In it, the first-person speaker describes opera-goers--women and girls--as they depart after an evening's performance. They fascinate him, but his fascination is not engendered by their dress or even their physicality. Their expressions and behaviour, signifying varied emotional states, are what engage his attention.
In this regard, the poem's pivotal lines are ten and eleven: "They take tragedy so becomingly. / Which pleases me." This, effectively, is his thesis; rather than stating and then proving it, however, he allows evidence to precede opinion. Such an arrangement dictates the quality of, and changes in, the poem's mood; and those changes create a movement of diastole and systole as the poem proceeds. The former, expansive mood dominates all but the last three lines. The countermovement, a sharp contraction, is thus made doubly arresting. Appealing in itself, this expansion and contraction also reveal that the speaker is not the kind of individual he might at first appear.
In stanza one, the speaker observes "Girls with their eyes wide with tragedy" (l.2) descending "the stone stairs" of the opera-house (l.1). The implication is of pre-Raphaelite beauties, perhaps, stirred by feelings they can scarce describe. This image finds emphasis in line three, when the speaker notes how they "Lift looks of shocked and momentous emotions up at me." Line three also defines sharply the speaker's attitude to the girls, an attitude only moderately implied in line two. They fascinate yet also amuse him. He may himself be stirred by their expressions, betraying as they do the opera's impact. Indefinable emotion may,...