Updated: Jan 11, 2021
A Stone's Throw
We shouted out
'We've got her! Here she is!
It's her all right '.
We caught her.
There she was -
A decent-looking woman, you'd have said,
(They often are)
Beautiful, but dead scared,
And not the first time
By any means
She'd felt men's hands
Greedy over her body -
But ours were virtuous,
And if our fingers bruised
Her shuddering skin,
These were love-bites, compared
To the hail of kisses of stone,
The last assault
And battery, frigid rape,
For justice must be done
It tastes so good.
And then - this guru,
Preacher, God-merchant, God-knows-what -
Spoilt the whole thing,
Speaking to her
(Should never speak to them)
Squatting on the ground - her level,
Writing in the dust
Something we couldn't read.
And saw in her
Something we couldn't see
At least until
He turned his eyes on us,
Her eyes on us,
Our eyes upon ourselves.
We walked away
Still holding stones
That we may throw
Given the urge.
The poem alludes to the story of Mary Magdalene in the Bible (John 8:3-11), highlighting themes of religion, violence, sexism and hypocrisy. The persona is addressing some sort of unknown audience who he either wants to convince or shares his point of view. He appears to be a misogynist, objectifying the woman who is the subject of the poem and the victim of the abuse of the persona. The persona stereotypes the woman as a harlot, and considers his assault of the woman to be righteous as a result. The recounting of this tale of violence by the persona is laced with glee, self-righteousness and sexual overtones. As the members of the village 'rough her up,' the persona notes callously that she had felt men's hands greedy over her body before. There is a sense of irony throughout the poem due to the assertion of the persona that they, assaulting this woman are more virtuous than the woman herself or any man with whom she had been with. However, as the persona and presumably a group of others in the village (as suggested by the use of 'we') prepare to exact 'justice' upon this woman through stoning her to death, a guru/preacher (Jesus) 'spoils their fun' by speaking to the woman. He sees a sort of humanity within the woman which the persona cannot and judges them, letting the woman judge them, and therefore triggering introspection in the surrounding crowd. They now leave, still holding stones- and their judgements against her- which they hope to throw another day given the urge.
The tone of the poem is nonchalant, callous and condescending. The mood is violent.
"We shouted out, 'We've got her! Here she is! It's her all right '. We caught her."
The persona begins with the use of the pronoun 'we' to show that he was accompanied by at least one other person. This could be in an attempt to share accountability, but it is more likely a display of the involvement of multiple pursuers in search of this woman. The subsequent lines are punctuated with exclamation points to show their excitement. 'We've got her' shows a triumphant conquering of this woman who has apparently evaded them for a while. 'Here she is' gives the impression of exhibiting her for all to see, like a trophy or an elusive animal. 'It's her all right' and 'we caught her' echo that triumph in capturing the woman.
"A decent-looking woman, you'd have said, (They often are)"
The persona evidently sees the woman as physically attractive, but uses the phrase 'you'd have said' to somewhat distance himself from admitting to the idea of finding her attractive. He continues to say 'they often are' showing that he simply classifies her as part of a group rather than as an individual. She is made to be only a stereotype.
"Beautiful, but dead scared,"
The persona again reaffirms the fact that the woman looks beautiful even though she is obviously deathly afraid.
"Tousled - we roughed her up A little, nothing much"
The word tousled here suggests that her clothing is slightly ruffled or her hair is disheveled, as though playing around. The persona goes on to say that they 'roughed her up a little, nothing much', a euphemism, insinuating that they didn't use any excessive force in capturing her. His version of the tale is obviously a lie.
"And not the first time By any means She'd felt men's hands Greedy over her body - "
These lines show that the men took the opportunity to let their hands roam around the woman's body. The persona makes a point of expressing that it wasn't the first time something like this would have happened to her, so it wasn't out of the ordinary. This also insinuates that she was a prostitute or a adulteress given to such promiscuity. The use of the word 'greedy' suggests a violent ravaging of the woman's body by these men who hope to sate a hunger by molesting this scared woman. They likely had long wanted to do so, but had neither the audacity nor the opportunity before.
"But ours were virtuous, Of course."
The persona here tries to make it seem as though they are virtuous in probing her body with their hands; as if they are above reproach for doing so. He tries to distance himself from those men with whom she fornicates. This is irony in that the persona suggests that he and those with him are 'virtuous' in fondling this woman's body, although they are doing the same thing as those she 'sins' with. Hence, his obdurate assertion of self-righteousness is ironic, since he is no different from those he tries to separate himself from.
"And if our fingers bruised Her shuddering skin, These were love-bites, compared To the hail of kisses of stone,"
The persona uses 'if' here in an attempt to mitigate their cruelty. It is obvious that they did bruise her skin, which is described as shuddering due to her fear. The persona introduces more erotic overtones by comparing these bruises to 'love-bites' like a bite made during intercourse meant to be pleasurable and painful simultaneously. He attempts to palliate (mitigate) their maltreatment of the woman by saying that there was far worse in store for her- particularly what is expressed in the speaker's euphemism for being stoned, 'the hail of kisses of stone.' By saying that the hail of stone would be like kisses, he introduces the idea that this violent execution of 'justice' would be pleasurable.
"The last assault and battery, frigid rape, to come of right."
The persona mentions the final punishment- like the final dish of a meal (assault and battery)- to be given to the woman- 'frigid rape.' This is an oxymoron because the speaker is inferring that the woman will be sexually assaulted, but not penetrated as in an actual rape. The phrase expresses the inability to consummate the physical act of a sexual assault, as it will be her corpse being violated. This is 'justice' to the persona as it correlates to how he thinks the woman lived her life- an object for the sheer use and disposal of men.
"For justice must be done specially when it tastes so good."
It is made evident by this line exactly how self-righteous the persona really is, because it isn't made clear in the poem exactly whose justice is being executed. These lines, then, clarify that this is simply providing pleasure for the persona, who neither values the life of the woman nor the idea of true justice. After all, whose laws did the woman break? What authority have they to deliver punishment? And most of all, is anything done here even close to justice? This extrajudicial punishment is clearly just enjoyable for the persona as shown by the line "...it tastes so good." They relish in the brutal assault and violation of this woman. This delight in her misfortune or Schadenfreude, continues this metaphor of a meal to sate the appetites of these power-hungry, misogynistic miscreants.
"And then - this guru, Preacher, God-merchant, God-knows-what -Spoilt the whole thing,"
The persona's tone takes a turn for the contemptuous as his masochistic euphoria is interrupted. He spits out several names to label the man by, and it is obvious that he is greatly upset by this man's intervening. He calls him a guru, as he is well-versed in matters pertaining to God or philosophy and the gospel; a God-merchant, implying the man's trade in things relating to God. The poet skilfully incorporates the use of the phrase 'God-knows-what,' as it denotes the persona's frustration with this man and his inability to confine him to a single category; but, it also indicates the fact that God does know the identity of this man even if no one in the crowd does (Jesus).
"Speaking to her (Should never speak to them) Squatting on the ground - her level,"
The man speaks to the woman who they want to persecute- something the persona considers taboo due to how he discriminates against this woman, stigmatizing her as a prostitute/adulteress undeserving of any human decency. The man literally comes between the mob and the woman, putting himself in harm's way.
The intervening man stoops to the ground, at the same level as the woman. This essentially shows that he is not critical of the woman; he doesn't consider himself morally or socially superior to her for any reason. Unlike the crowd, he sees her as a human being and not an object of immorality and ridicule. The way that the persona says 'her level' gives the impression of disgust and prejudice.
"Writing in the dust Something we couldn't read."
This line, where the man is said to write something that the mob couldn't read, has several possible connotations. What he wrote could either be a foreign language or it could be simply illegible. However, he could have intended to show the crowd that they lacked discernment in their condemnation/persecution of another human being by writing in the dust.
"And saw in her something we couldn't see at least until he turned his eyes on us, her eyes on us, our eyes upon ourselves."
The man sees something in the woman that the persona and the mob could not see in her. However, it became obvious once the man looked at the crowd, and the woman looked at them as well. In turn, they began to look at themselves. In an attempt to persecute this woman, they themselves had operated with no moral compass. They had descended to such a level where nothing morally right had been achieved. No words were said, but the crowd understood.
"We walked away still holding stones that we may throw another day given the urge."
The crowd leaves, feeling dejected and unable to satisfy their craving for brutality and violence. However, they still have their stones in hand- showing that the insight given by the man would not be permanently incorporated into the minds of the crowd. The precepts of true justice- rationality, truth and fairness- has never been and will never be a part of the crowd's purpose. They have no intention of changing. They will do the same again 'given the urge.'
The entire poem, is of course an allusion:
The poet has used the concept of intertextuality in crafting her poem from an original story taken from the Gospel of Jon 8: 3-11. In the Bible story a woman is accused of adultery and is brought before Jesus because according to Mosaic Law, she should be stoned to death. Jesus states the famous lines, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” Her accusers scatter. Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her and to go and refrain from sinning.