Daniel Hoffman’s As I Was Going To St. Ives


As I Was Going To St. Ives
by Daniel Hoffman

As I was going to Saint Ives
In stormy, windy, sunny weather,
I met a man with seven wives
(The herons stand on the swift water).

One drinks her beer out of his can
In stormy, windy, and bright weather,
And who laughs more, she or her man?
(The herons stand still on the water.)

One knows the room his candle lit,
In stormy, lightning, cloudburst weather,
That glows again at the thought of it
(Two herons still the swift water.)

His jealous, wild-tongued, Wednesday’s wife —
In dreepy, wintry, wind-lashed weather
What’s better than that ranting strife?
(Two herons still the roaring water.)

There’s one whose mind’s so like his mind
In streaming wind or balmy weather,
All joy, all wisdom seem one kind.
(The herons stand in the swift water.)

And one whose secret mazes he
In moon-swept, in torrential weather
Ransacks, and cannot find the key
(Two herons stand in the white water.)

And when to Saint Ives then I came
In fairest, rainiest, windiest weather,
They called his shadow by my name,
(The herons stand in the quick water.)

And the one whose love moves all he’s done,
In windy, warm, and wintry weather,
What can he leave but speaks thereon?
(Two herons still the swift water.)

Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman pictured above with a creative peer, Annie Kunjappy, is now 89. He was made Poet Laureate Consultant in 1973.

Lewis Turco gives a useful but technical analysis of this poem at his neat site.  This poem retells an old riddle which asks the question, how many were going to St. Ives?  We have eight stanzas, the first being introductory.  And then can we count seven wives in the other stanzas?

The third wife is the man’s “wednesday’s wife.” Then we can count the wives by days, the first being monday’s.  There is no overt mention of a wife on the Saturday stanza.  That is, unless the man’s ‘shadow called by the speaker’s name,’ has been called by his name because of marriage.  It seems the speaker has merged with not only the shadow, but the man with seven wives.

The final stanza returns us to the riddle, which asks “how many are going to St. Ives, among a man who had seven wives, each with seven sacks, each with seven cats, each with seven kittens?” The answer is one, for all else turn back. Now, Hoffman says this Sunday wife is “the one” (“whose love moves all he’s done.”)  She is, as Lewis Turco says, the single wife representing all women to her husband.  So if we ask what is turned back from the man going to St. Ives, (and how many travel on,) the man answers, “what can he leave but speaks thereon?”  In other words he can leave nothing of this mystery, it always travels with him, and moves everything he does.  And with that, he bids us goodbye, we who speak too much.

One last thought: All this smorgasbord, this mad loving, may be indebted to the influence of the Little Richard song, as quoted here, Tutti Frutti.

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