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The Breadwinners

Walter Langley’s ‘The Breadwinners’

The sea is tranquil now, at low tide
in the busy harbour. Boats are coming in
towards the lighthouse
as in a child’s picture, their russet sails
pointing upward from a light blue
placid ocean into a pale grey sky.

Fishermen seen from a distance
unload their catch, while
off to the left (silhouetted like rocks
against the water) two women
forage for a pittance
among piles of seaweed.

All the elements of a maritime
working day are drawn together
to create a balanced composition,
so that the eye comes quietly to rest
on humdrum things
selected for what they signify:

in the middle ground a bottomless
basket, overturned where the sea
has left it, empty mouth agape;
in the bottom right-hand corner
damp bladder-wrack scrawled
over a stone like an artist’s signature.

Yet how unflinchingly the three
old Newlyn fishwives are depicted
in their stoic trudge across the shining sand:
moving towards us, straining under
their burdens, filling the foreground
with their working bodies.

Here they come, in grubby threadbare aprons
and sand-caked shoes – baskets laden,
backs set stubbornly against the ocean:
two of them huddled together, as if joined
by hidden ties; the other walking apart,
her strong spirit all but broken.

Their faces are in shadow, but bowed
shoulders betray as much hardship
and endurance as lined foreheads
half-glimpsed under headscarves,
obdurate set of mouths and chins,
downward gaze of private, preoccupied eyes.

Walter Langley, 'The Breadwinners'

The Breadwinners
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