The Breadwinners

A poem responding to Walter Langley's painting 'The Breadwinners' (Newlyn School)

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'