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Be good, sweet maid
Wondering about clarity of poem
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2013/06/01
12:21am
Robert
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Joyce Carol Oates uses this quote, part of a young girl's guiding principles to ‘ladylike’ mannerism:
Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever!
(p. 62, ‘The Accursed’)

The exclamation mark seems to indicate that, in Oates’ mind, it is a complete sentence.
Is it? Doesn’t the verb ‘let’ need to be completed with another verb? as in, for instance:

Be good, sweet maid, and let be clever who will !
Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever be !

The Charles Kingsley’s version though, is like this:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever
One grand, sweet song.      

Therein lies the possibility of ‘let…do noble things’ -But only if there were no semicolon! As is, Kingsley also appears to terminate the sentence same as Oates. Especially because ‘Be good…’ and ‘Do noble…’ appear to parallel each other, each beginning a command to the girl.

My point is: whatever the correct interpretation, and whether good the grammar, there is a small cloud of ambiguity over this masterful poem, but bothersome enough to make the reader stop to wonder about the intention of the poet, thus preventing a full appreciation of the considerable beauty of it. Y’all agree? If not why?

2013/06/01
2:33am
Ron Draney
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My mind parses the line a different way from you. I see the last part as let {someone} be clever, where {someone} is (the person or persons) who will. If you must have another verb in there, make it another be immediately before the one that's already there, but that makes the person reading it sound like Porky Pig, so best to omit it.

2013/06/01
10:33am
EmmettRedd
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My parsing is like Ron's.

In fact, the whole line seems a contrast, "Be good, sweet maid, but let another--not you be clever!" maybe indicating that being clever is not being good. In addition, it seems advice to not even try to stop those who will themselves to be clever.

2013/06/01
6:57pm
Glenn
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I agree with Ron and Emmett. The sentence is clipped and poetic and somewhat inverted. And it doesn't help that it contains a subjunctive verb.

Be good, sweet maid, and let be clever who will !

"Be good" is an imperative, more in the tone of advice in this case. "Sweet maid" is the young lady being addressed. "Who will" is a nominal relative with a subjunctive. It might be paraphrased as "whoever might want that." So the remaining part could be paraphrased as "let whoever might want that be clever."

I don't see this as being a strict opposition between "good" and "clever," but there is a strong implication in this advice that cleverness can possibly undermine goodness, and that goodness is the more valuable quality.

2013/06/02
4:40am
Robert
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Perhaps (but definitely for me) the phrase 'will be' is just too easily recognizable for its own good in this case:  For me it automatically lights up as a fixed word pattern, and thus it robs the 'be' from 'let be' where 'be' should rightfully belong in this case.  
 
By y'all's analyses though, y'all don't seem bothered much, or at all, by that mind-set that did snare me so badly.
 
I still would definitely recommend to Mr. Kingsley though, to split the 'be' from 'will be' and use it as Glenn rephrases above (and as I also suggested at top, word for word).  The modified verse still sounds nice, while avoiding possible misinterpretation.
 
The background : Oates is describing ladylike sentiments circa 1900, in this instance concerning adherence to traditional faiths and disdains for strange ideas such as underlying Darwinism and Marxism.  So the kinds of contrasts between 'good' and 'clever' that y'all seem so keen to detect from the verse are exactly what Oates means to impress on readers.

 

2013/06/03
5:20am
Glenn
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For the record, my paraphrase should not be construed as a suggested improvement. I do not advocate a rewrite of the original. Clarity is not the ultimate goal in all forms of writing.

And I think I should make a point that the will here is not functioning as a marker of the future in any way. Instead, it is a simple verb in subjunctive mood expressing a conjectured present tense act of the will, a choice or resolve:
will

The subtext is something like this. "We both know that there are unnamed maids out there who are choosing to be clever, losing their focus on being good, and ultimately sacrificing their goodness for the opportunity to show off their wit. Don't join in with them in their unwise priorities. Be good above all else."

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